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The Hacker

LIVING Those who read Lucire in print will have seen advertisements for travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker. We have serialized two of Stanley’s stories before—The Crimson Garter and Fate and the Pearls. For those facing an extended lockdown during the pandemic, have we a tale for you. In The Hacker, all hell breaks loose at a struggling young Gurgaon-based software firm when Shaitan Vikram, one of its ex-employees and a psychopath hacker, swears to revenge his legitimate but ill-timed dismissal from the company rolls. We begin with the prologue

 

 

 


Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

Two months earlier

 

In retrospect, the problems probably began not with what or how, as is usually the case in software, but with who. And this particular who wasn’t the person most people would have suspected, an aggressive project manager named Shivani Sachdeva.

In late 2007, Shivani made a pitch to a predatory Hong Kong business magnate named TK Yee at a trade fair in the Shangri-La Hotel in Taipei. While the evening was hardly memorable for Shivani, who found TK Yee’s conversation bland and his breath across the table barely tolerable, the businessman hungered for more from the voluptuous young woman he had chanced upon.

So he contrived a professional opportunity for her. Her employer, a young Delhi-based software company named Talsera, was offered a medium-sized contract to debug a botched software project at Yee’s new tech start-up headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. TK Yee’s plan was simple: lure Shivani to Hong Kong on a regular basis and “meet” her without letting his wife, five children and mistress know.

However, he never lived to see her again. In early 2008, after signing the contract with Talsera, he got embroiled in a rivalry involving his mistress—a dragon lady type who fuelled the entire incident—and was murdered by a Hong Kong gangster. But the contract remained with Talsera and Shivani expected a handsome commission on its completion.

 

In the following spring Shivani led a team of five programmers—two girls and three guys—to Mountain View, California in order to understand the late Mr Yee’s job. For the largely IIT-educated team, it was one of those rare on-site visits that they had always dreamt of. After touching down in the USA on Sunday, they successfully completed their assignment by Thursday, and found themselves with a full day of freedom on Friday, since they were booked on a Saturday night flight back to Delhi.

Shivani knew the city well enough, and since she was responsible for her colleagues, she told the team she wanted to show them around Silicon Valley. While the girls readily agreed to her offer, the boys declined it. They wished to ride the BART into San Francisco for the day off, a proposition which was not disagreeable to Shivani, who found the boys largely a pain in the ass.

So, she took the girls to a hippy-dippy breakfast at Hobee’s in Palo Alto, then to visit a cousin of hers who was a developer at Apple’s corporate office in Cupertino, then lunched at the Alpine Inn, and spent the rest of the day wandering around the Stanford campus. At night she treated them to dinner at the Mission Bells Coffee Shop, which was attached to the Tropical Palms Motel where the team was staying on El Camino Real. Once she had put the girls safely to bed in their rooms, she called up an ex-boyfriend who worked in the local Ebay office and spent the night at his apartment.

The boys never went to San Francisco. Their ringleader, a reclusive twenty-six-year-old Talsera programmer named Vikram, had other plans for the three of them. While the other two guys, both 22-year-old provincial freshers, had spent most of their Thursday evening playing Nintendo games on the flat-screen television in the room they shared and watching pay-per-view porn movies, a detail later reported by bookkeeping to the HR office in Delhi—three features, $17·99 each, listed as ‘in-room adult entertainment’—and which gave rise to much juicy gossip in Talsera’s Gurgaon office, Vikram had spent the night in his own room, glued to his computer screen.

At Talsera, Vikram had gained a reputation as someone without a healthy balance between his personal and professional lives. Though his work was excellent, if not sometimes inspired, his behaviour was bizarre in general and truly alarming when drunk. He did not mix well with his colleagues and spent all his time hunched over his workstation at the office. On one memorable occasion, he got sloshed on Indian whisky at a Talsera company party, and challenged his imagined rivals to a finish-to-death game of World of Warcraft, in which he insisted he could kick their asses. When nobody rose to the dare, he came on strong to several girls at the party who immediately rejected his advances. He then stripped off his shirt, climbed atop a table and danced to ‘Dus Bahane Kar Ke Le Gaye Dil’ before careening onto the floor and passing out.

A group of well meaning colleagues carried him home in a taxi and put him into bed. While he snored away they checked out the marvel of disarray that his apartment was. He was slovenly: his bathroom was a shithole; his underwear were strewn all about the tiny flat; and his walls were covered with posters of Bollywood item girls, expensive sports cars, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and graphic magazine spreads torn from the centres of Hustler and Penthouse. These details and his shirtless dance fed the gossip mill at Talsera for weeks to follow, and earned him the secret nickname ‘Shaitan Vikram’.

People eventually got on with their work and ignored the alter ego he had revealed at the party. But HR attached him to a personal mentor. However, even he soon requested assignment elsewhere. When this happened, Vikram was warned he might be asked to resign if he did not learn to get along better at least with the people in his group. But Vikram’s behaviour remained alienated, angry, defensive, unchanged. At the time of the California trip, Shivani was on the verge of recommending his removal from the company altogether. Though he was a brilliant programmer and a puzzle whiz, his sociopathic tendencies and their ill effects on his colleagues could not be overlooked. Plenty of people wanted to work at Talsera, and he could easily be replaced.

Shivani had given permission to the boys to go sightseeing in San Francisco, but she had not known that Vikram had convinced the other two impressionable freshers to cooperate in a master-scheme of his own, one which involved neither sightseeing nor San Francisco. He had persuaded the boys to pool their money for a day of adventure, food, drinks and glamour. He had promised them an odyssey into the American heartland and an opportunity to make a small fortune in one day’s time. He called it a once-in-a-lifetime chance which they would be foolish to pass up and which they would never forget. He told them he had done the necessary research on Google, and if things went according to his calculations, they would be back in Mountain View by the end of the day without Shivani ever discovering a thing.

When Shivani peered out through the curtains of her room at the Tropical Palms Motel at 6.30 a.m. Friday, she saw Vikram and his two charges pile into a green and white cab. She also distinctly overheard Vikram tell the driver to take them to the Denny’s nearest to the BART station. Then she returned to her own preparations for a boring day chaperoning the girls and an interesting night thereafter.

She had never imagined that following their Early Bird Special Breakfasts ($5·99—bottomless cups of coffee!) the trio of boys would ride another cab to the corner of El Camino Real and Castro, where Vikram and the boys would board the Silver Dollar Special—a shiny, green, luxury-outfitted, air-conditioned bus which took people directly to Reno, Nevada non-stop, under a special promotion advertised as ‘It’s Your Lucky Day! Express’. Vikram had found it online, where he easily purchased three $39·95 round-trip tickets. In the course of the four-hour ride which had followed, the two boys watched Runaway Bride and The Sound of Music on drop-down overhead video monitors. Vikram, on the other hand, studied notes he had printed out the previous night at the business centre in the lobby of the Tropical Palms Motel. All three were plied with endless drinks and snacks throughout the ride. None of them took the time to look out at the scenery.

A little before 1 p.m. the bus deposited them on Henderson Boulevard in Reno, directly in front of Earl Swaggert’s Golden Ingot Casino and Hotel. Vikram turned in their coupons (‘First $10 on us!’) and was handed tall plastic cups filled with big silver coins. He dispensed an additional $25 in quarters to both the boys. Then, he bought five $5 chips at the cashier’s window, scoped out the blackjack tables and chose a bored-looking white lady dealer with bright red fingernails whose name tag read ‘Dixie’ and whose ample boobs he enjoyed looking at as he played.

Fuelled by complimentary Coca-Colas delivered by waitresses in skimpy outfits, the two other boys began the thrilling business of losing their 140 quarters one by one among the glittering rows of slots. It took them some time, since they were constantly distracted by the noise and lights as other people won ka-ching-ka-ching jackpots at nearby machines. Occasionally they were visited by seductive unaccompanied women in provocative attire, who hovered close by while they compulsively fed the shimmering slot machines. Sometimes when the women would speak to them over the constant cacophony of the casino, the boys would blush and fumble incomprehensible replies. It did not occur to them to look for Vikram, not for hours. Only when they had finally exhausted their hoard of coins and had repeatedly visited the all-you-can-eat buffet (‘$3·99! Try our new Salad Bar!’) did they wander about the garish and windowless room in search of him. After forty-five minutes of navigating that temple of greed, where the stale smell of dead cigarettes and a thousand spilled cocktails permeated the atmosphere like a thick and nauseating fog, they discovered him deep in concentration, relocated to a twenty-dollar table, his chips transformed into a heap in front of him, which they, at the time, did not know totalled $6,850 in winnings. For a long time they stood at the sidelines, gawking, transfixed as Vikram, seated among all those foreigners, bet and won, bet and won again. He did not acknowledge their presence, so focused on the cards was he.

Months earlier Vikram had discovered online gambling from the privacy of his home in a rotting suburb of Delhi. It was an inexhaustible universe uniquely suited to his individual gifts. He was addicted in no time and even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, on several occasions to log on to gambling sites from his computer at Talsera, a detail later unearthed by IT, who routinely blocked such sites. Vikram quickly grasped the rudiments of blackjack and as he delved deeper into its simple principles, he realized he could easily count cards, a talent disdained by casinos but one which favoured players unknown to the house. He soon memorized the rules and the odds and planned to try and write a program which could break the banks of the virtual casinos. But he did not know how to deal with what the virtual casinos called ‘token penetration’, which meant he needed an enormous bankroll and be prepared to take a long string of losses before he could generate some big winnings. But, alas, he lived nowhere near a bricks-and-mortar casino where his extraordinary gifts could be tested.

So, when the opportunity to do so unexpectedly surfaced in the US at the end of the Talsera trip, he quickly contrived a scheme to visit Reno. He had seen Rain Man and Casino and 21 and knew very well that if the casino was too small or if he demonstrated his ability too obviously, he would be quickly found out, and that, therefore, he had only one shot before being banned from any place.

When he was seated at the table in Reno, he calculated how much he could make in the time he had. The answer, when it finally came, shocked him so much that he lost sight of everything and became consumed by the game.

 

From inside the dimly lit security room on the second floor of the casino, Sam Eldridge, the Golden Ingot pit boss, watched Vikram intently on a surveillance screen.

‘That sumbitch is counting cards,’ he said to nobody in particular.

‘How do you know, Sam?’ asked a uniformed officer named Butch, whose job it was to watch the roulette tables.

‘I just got a feeling. Little guy’s been at it a while now—he knows exactly what he’s doing. Lookee there, he just dumped a nine and a ten so he ain’t winning so fast.’

‘You want to shut him down?’

‘Nah, I can’t prove anything yet. He’s not wired; he’s not wearing shades; he hasn’t got an earpiece; and there’s nothing going on between him and the dealer. His two buddies off to the side ain’t telling him nothing neither. No, what we got here is a talented amateur. I’ll shut him down when he gets to fifty. We got his picture; we’ll make sure he won’t be coming back.’

Constantly running up his winnings and being watched by Sam, Vikram never lost focus until someone came up beside him and whispered in his ear, ‘Sir, the bus has left.’

‘Left?’ Vikram looked about as if awakened from a dream, and noted the vast, gaudy room with red velvet walls and mirrors and its incessant din. He saw that he shared the table with a fat Chinese man; a cowboy in a white ten-gallon hat; a nervous, balding, shabbily dressed guy sporting gold chains and an embarrassing combover; and a woman wearing a T-shirt which read ‘I’m with Stupid So Shut the Fuck Up’. He noticed the two boys he had come with standing awkwardly to his right, and two Vietnamese call girls lurking on his left. One of them began massaging his left shoulder. The other smiled sweetly and said, ‘We sisters. My name Ming. Her name Ling. You and your friends want have drink with us? We go some place, have some fun. You like have fun?’ Of course it was all a lie: they were hardly sisters, simply two expats from Vietnam who worked at the casino together. They were roommates with unpronounceable names, who sent back money to their families every month. All they wanted in life was to save up enough to buy houses in Ho Chi Minh City, and to then return home.

‘Not interested,’ Vikram said, removing Ming’s hand from his shoulder.

‘I hope your dick fall off,’ Ming hissed, and headed for the next table. Ling followed behind.

Reality quickly came back to Vikram. He noticed that everyone—the dealer, the people around the table, the boys and a strange man in a tuxedo who stood close by—was waiting for him and at the same time he realized that they must somehow get back to Mountain View before Shivani suspected some mischief had occurred.

‘OK, time to cash out,’ he told the boys. ‘Help me with these chips.’ They now represented a considerable heap. Vikram had calculated they totalled $38,980. He didn’t realize Ming had palmed a $50 chip during the shoulder massage. They walked to the cashier’s window. The tuxedoed man accompanied them and never left their side. It was Sam Eldridge.

‘Whyn’t we let the cashier get a total for you, and you guys step into my office, please,’ he said, pointing to a room next to the main gates.

Vikram froze. ‘Something is wrong, sir?’ he asked.

‘When a feller wins a pot like you got yourself, we aim to watch out for him. Make certain nothing bad happens. Ain’t good for business if the customers get into trouble.’

They allowed themselves to be ushered into Sam’s private office, a shrine to the cowboy. They were motioned to sit in three overstuffed club chairs whose leather was decorated with a multitude of cattle brands. The walls, a tribute to the Old West, were decked with rodeo posters, mounted spurs, bullwhips and frontier revolvers. A guard stood placidly, arms crossed, by the door. But Vikram’s attention was focused on the tuxedoed man, a rather beefy fellow with a blond pompadour and a suspicious smile, who now sat behind the desk and played with a Bowie knife, sliding its shimmering blade between his well-manicured fingers.

‘Trouble, sir? We are only customers, not troublemakers.’

Vikram sir, aapne to kaha tha koi risk nahin hai. Hum yahaan arrest ho gaye to panga ho jayega, sab barbaad ho jaayega! [Vikram sir, you had said there is no risk. If we get arrested here, there would be big trouble, everything would be finished!] one of the Talsera boys said in panic.

Chupbey, saaley! Mujhe baat karne de. Yeh aadmi kuchh nahi kar sakta. [Shut up, idiot! Let me do the talking. This man can’t do anything to us.]’

Mummy ko kya explain karoonga?! [How will I explain this to Mummy?!]’ the boy whined.

Sam Eldridge didn’t get a word of the gobbledygook they were saying, but he didn’t care. He wanted these guys out of his casino, pronto. ‘No need to get all hot and bothered, son,’ he said affably. ‘We just got to sort out a few details. You’ll get your money, don’t worry. The cashier will draw you a cheque right quick.’

‘No, sir, not cheque. Must be cash.’

Sam Eldridge raised an eyebrow. ‘Then we gots ourselves a little paperwork to do first. I’ll need your Social Security Number and home address.’

‘Sir, I respectfully request you immediately pay me my winnings in cash. I am an Indian citizen here on a B1 visa. You can see my passport if you want.’

‘Whoa there, buckaroo,’ Sam Eldridge said, looking at the maroon ID Vikram passed across the desk. ‘We do things differently in the You Ess of A. See, I gotta report this to the tax man or I’m in a passel of trouble. If you ain’t got a Social Security Number, then we take the taxes out right now, and neither of us hears from the IRS again.’

‘What is IRS, sir?’

‘Now you catch that, Jimmy,’ Sam Eldridge said to the guard. ‘This feller’s got some real respect going on, hear how he calls me “sir” all the time? I like that. You one smart boy, I think. Son, the IRS is our tax office. We got a total for this gentleman, Jimmy? Paperwork ready?’

‘Yeah,’ Jimmy said, pulling a scrap out of his pocket and consulting it. He handed over some forms to Eldridge. ‘After taxes he gets $27,890.’

‘Well now, almost twenty-eight grand! That’s a pretty handsome amount for one little brown guy for an afternoon’s work, wouldn’t you say?’

‘I surely would,’ Jimmy smiled.

‘Sir, I am respectfully requesting that you …’

Sam Eldridge held up his hand. ‘You’ll get your cash, son,’ he promised. ‘But maybe you’ll give us a chance to win a little of it back?’

‘No, thank you, sir.’

‘We’d be real happy to put you gents up at the hotel here for the night. Maybe start with a nice steak dinner and …’

‘We are veg,’ one of the boys volunteered, though Sam did not understand what he meant.

‘… give you a comfy suite. Maybe you’d like to try the roulette tables? Maybe you looking for some company?’

Vikram thought: USA is so efficient about taxes! In India they would have me filling out papers for hours and then find something is wrong and then there would be days of more paperwork. Here they have the forms ready! ‘No, sir. We will pay our taxes, and then we will go.’

Sam Eldridge kept smiling. ‘You sure I can’t interest you in a night at the Golden Ingot, on the house?’

Vikram shook his head. I know the odds, he thought. Especially roulette. Fast way to lose everything.

‘I think you must be one smart guy,’ the pit boss went on, narrowing his cold and calculating eyes. ‘Maybe too smart for the people you’re working for. You ever think of changing careers, taking a job at a casino? Suspect I could use a guy with your—um—expert skills.’ Vikram looked at the white man behind his big desk. Someday I will come back here, he thought, and I will buy this place and you will work for me.

Eldridge read Vikram’s thoughts, sensed the contempt, passed him three sheets of paper. ‘Sign here, here and here.’

Vikram perused the forms carefully. They looked official enough. One form declared the winnings, the second declared that the tax was being collected on the spot by the government and the third was a cash receipt. Vikram signed all three. The two boys gasped as Eldridge pulled out bundles of currency, counted out the balance and handed across the full amount, whistling in admiration.

‘Twenty-seven eight nine-oh. That didn’t hurt too much, did it?’ the pit boss said as Vikram stuffed the money into his ratty shoulder bag. ‘Now, I been watching you play, and I don’t know how you did it, but it weren’t natural. I saw you give away some hands no sane person woulda let go, so I knew you was playing us along, son. I don’t want you leaving us without you knowing we was on to you. Do yourself a favour: don’t show your face again at the Golden Ingot. Get on home to wherever it is you come from, and good riddance to you. I’m a-gonna circulate your picture around town too; let people know who you are. When you come on back here, you may find you’re not so welcome. You understand my meaning?’

Vikram stared at the man, did not reply.

‘And in the interest of making certain that you promptly leave town, may I offer you a courtesy ride directly to the airport in one of the casino’s limousines? Is that a yes? Jimmy, call for the car. And let me offer you one more piece of free advice. The USA don’t like foreign people leaving our shores with more than $10,000 in greenbacks, so if you’re intending to take that money home with you, you better be certain you ain’t breaking any laws cause if you do you might find yourself in some unpleasant detention facility waiting around a year and a day for some redneck judge to hear your plea. IRS is pretty interested in where gambling winnings go, ’specially when foreign nationals is concerned. So you boys better be careful. Now get the hell outta my office, your car is waiting. I got more important things to do than chew the fat any longer with the likes of you.’

 

The Shaitan Vikram was back: they could see it in his face as they rode through Reno that night on the way to the airport. In the limousine his dark side took over him and he brooded alone in the corner of the soft leather seat and fixed himself a drink of Jack Daniel’s over ice from the wet bar. His other arm firmly cradled his shoulder bag, where nearly $28,000 in US currency resided.

The boys sat across from him on the jump seats. His eyes darted back and forth between them, daring them to speak, but they did not. They were wondering how they’d get back to Mountain View that night, what they’d tell Shivani and whether Shaitan Vikram, as promised, would give them their one per cent of the score, a deal which suddenly seemed like a very unfair bargain for the incredible risks they had unwittingly taken under his urging. True, he had got them out of the casino, he had faced down the white man in the tuxedo and, now, due to him they were riding in a limousine for the first time in their lives. But it had all been so reckless, deceptive and dangerous. He was correct: it was a day they were never going to forget as long as they lived, and it wasn’t over yet.

As the evening descended over Reno and the limousine glided through its streets as if on a cloud of air, Shaitan Vikram sipped at his drink and peered out at the glossy city of endless neon signs. He marvelled at the parade of shiny SUVs whooshing by on the pristine streets which gave way to a smooth, tungsten-lit highway. All this while the air conditioning hissed in the background, he plotted and the provincial boys squirmed in their seats, waiting for him to issue orders.

He had told them to keep quiet until they were alone. But even in the limousine, they were not alone. The driver, a uniformed black American in a grey cap, who had not said a word since he had held the door open for them at the casino, occasionally locked eyes with Shaitan Vikram in the rear view mirror. So they drove on in an eerie silence, the massive vehicle moving from lane to lane —never a bump, never a horn sounding—in the crisp and clear night air under a ceiling of shimmering stars. To the two boys, it seemed like a ride through a wicked paradise, a flight from a confused place where dreams became nightmares and fact and fiction could not be separated.

At the airport they waited in the car until the driver got out, opened the door for them, said, ‘Have a nice flight, gentlemen,’ and drove away in silence. The boys followed Vikram to the Southwest Airlines counter, where he used cash to purchase three tickets on the next flight to San Jose Airport. The boys wordlessly marvelled at the ease with which he completed the transaction, bought them overpriced ice-creams, found the way to the boarding gate and hustled them aboard. When the plane touched down after only forty-five minutes in the air, he led them to the outside curb, found a taxi and directed the driver to the Tropical Palms Motel in Mountain View. It was 9.48 p.m. when the cab pulled into the parking lot. All this while, Vikram had barely said anything to them.

The motel seemed to be deserted. Shivani was long gone for her assignation with the Ebay programmer. The other two girls were drinking milkshakes up in their room, watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels on television.

Vikram could see that the two boys were in a state of shock. He told them to meet him in his room on the second level in twenty minutes. Once he was inside his room, he pulled the currency out of his bag and counted it: $27,018 remained. When the boys arrived, he sat them down on the chairs across from the second queen-sized bed where the money rested, divided into three neat piles.

‘Sir, it was riskier than you had said it would be. We think that we deserve a share of 10 per cent of the winnings.’

Vikram had expected this. ‘Two per cent,’ he said. ‘Not a penny more. It was I who signed the papers, I who will be responsible if there is any trouble. Anyway, I did not call you here to bargain. I need your help to carry all the money back to India.’

‘But that is an additional risk, sir. We cannot take such chances for that small a reward.’

‘Here is the way it is going to happen,’ Vikram told them coldly. ‘Each of you carries $9,000 for me so that you do not need to declare the money to US Customs. Once we get to New Delhi you keep $800 and give me back the rest. That is almost three per cent, triple of what you expected. That is my best offer.’

‘Sir, let us keep $1,500 each, and we are finished with you. We deserve at least that much for our loyalty and silence.’ The boy came from a family of rug merchants; he had seen negotiations being conducted all his life. His voice trembled as he spoke the words.

‘You return $8,000 to me in Delhi; that is the deal. You get the equivalent of ₹50,000. When was the last time you made that much in a day for doing nothing except having a real adventure? Take it or leave it. If you say no, I will take my chances myself, and you can each walk out of this room with $300 cash right now, which is still more than what I originally offered you.’

The boys looked at each other, then at the money which rested on the bed in three orderly stacks. ‘We will give back $8,000 in Delhi,’ they together said, picked up a stack each and left the room.

 

By the time they reached India, Shivani was convinced something had happened with the boys in San Francisco. Ever since their return, Vikram had behaved in a detached way and the other two boys had sullen and secretive expressions on their faces throughout the flight back. They had avoided eye contact with her and with each other as well. Something had definitely gone wrong, she had decided. She’d herself returned early morning, after her date with her ex-boyfriend. It had been a bit disappointing: he’d only wanted to complain about all the American girls he was dating and how materialistic they were, and how much he missed India and his mother’s cooking. By the end, she had decided to never see him again. Before going up to her room she had asked the night clerk what time the three boys had returned. Ten p.m., she had been told. She didn’t think the boys could have done any serious hell-raising if they were back so early. She was sure that three underpaid boys who had never been to the USA before couldn’t have gotten into that much trouble.

But, later, she came to the conclusion that something really suspicious had happened in San Francisco and it had all been due to Shaitan Vikram. She had decided to discuss it with Ricky Talsera once they were in Delhi. Vikram was brilliant all right, but he clearly also was volatile, unpredictable and apparently led a sinister double life. He must go.

 

‘Perfect,’ thought Shaitan Vikram. ‘So this is what it has come down to.’ He was seated in the Einstein Conference Room on the second floor of Building 3 of Talsera’s Gurgaon headquarters. Waiting across from him were Priyanka, a bubbly girl from HR on the left; Ricky Talsera, the co-owner, fidgety and uncertain in the center; and Shivani the Destroyer, seated cold as ice on his right. Perfect. On the table, glasses of water, some nice biscuits and chips and the usual red folders.

They’ve definitely dug up something on me, he thought. Well, surprise-surprise, I will soon have a surprise for them. Vikram guzzled his glass of water, stuffed a biscuit in his mouth and sat back in his chair as if he was relaxing in his living room watching television.

‘So you understand we don’t terminate at Talsera, right?’ Priyanka said, leaning forward, attempting to look concerned. ‘We always try to create situations in which the employees can grow without stress. If somebody isn’t happy we try counselling sessions …’

‘I know that,’ Vikram said, not bothering to conceal his irritation. ‘That was a big help. Lots of good advice, zero results.’

‘We put you with a mentor,’ Priyanka went on.

‘Didn’t last long,’ Vikram said.

‘So it suggests to us …’

‘Suggests to us,’ Ricky Talsera broke in, ‘that we need to get you a safety net of two or three months, use our resources and find you some new job options.’

‘You’re firing me,’ Vikram responded. ‘Go ahead, say it. You guys want me out.’

Priyanka spoke up. ‘We have a defined mode of disengaging a person at Talsera, Vikram. We don’t give a termination letter. We treat things like this as a resignation case.’

Shaitan Vikram’s eyes looked up and around the room as if following a stray mosquito. He jiggled his foot, tapped his pencil on the table, and finally said, ‘Are you guys trying to tell me my work’s not good enough?’

‘No, Vikram, it’s not a case of non-performance,’ Ricky said, obviously uncomfortable wielding the axe. ‘Maybe it’s a difference of styles, I don’t know. But whatever it is we’re trying to help you here.’

‘Help me?’ Vikram said. ‘That’s a laugh. You’re trying to fire me without saying I’m fired. Go on, say it: Vikram, you’re fired.’

Shivani had heard enough. ‘Listen, Vikram, we’ve given you more chances than anyone has ever been given at this company, but lately things have got out of hand. Do I need to go into details?’ she asked and tapped the top of the red file in front of her with her red-lacquered fingernail. Chanel Vixen Red.

‘Why don’t you give it your best shot, Shivani,’ he said. ‘You’ve been looking for a reason to fire me for some time. What do you have on me? Stealing? Inflated expenses? Sexual harrassment?’

‘Some of this stuff is serious, Vikram,’ Ricky Talsera said. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to just resign? Might make it easier on everyone.’

‘Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,’ Vikram said belligerently. ‘You guys called me in here, so what’s this all about?’

Shivani opened her red folder and looked distastefully at the topmost sheet. ‘IT was running a routine internet access audit about two weeks ago. They think you’ve been downloading some pretty large data over Talsera’s intranet. That rings a bell?’

Vikram didn’t move, just stared back at her.

‘Not that it matters,’ she went on, ‘but there’s been a number of pirated movies, Eastern European porn and video games coming through your address. I suppose you’re going to tell me somebody’s stolen your password and you don’t know anything about this?’

‘I’m not saying anything,’ Vikram growled.

‘And online gambling? Sounds familiar?’ Shivani asked, turning to the second page, appearing to be enjoying the interrogation a shade too much.

‘You guys know all this stuff can be faked. Maybe somebody’s trying to get me, ever think of that?’

‘Wait, let me complete,’ Shivani went on. ‘What happened on the day you went up to San Francisco with those two freshers? Some pretty wild rumours are circulating. People saying you took them to a gambling parlour. True?’

‘I didn’t take anybody gambling in San Francisco. Who’s dreaming up all this bullshit?’

Shivani turned to the next page. ‘HR heard that one of those boys took two of his friends to dinner at Bukhara and left an extravagant tip behind. The other one gave a money changer a wad of American $100 bills to convert into rupees.’

Vikram stood up abruptly. ‘Listen, if you want me to resign, I’ll resign. But not because of your ridiculous accusations.’ Vikram thought about the packet taped to the underside of his desk drawer at home. An envelope containing $25,000 in cash. American hundreds. He didn’t need Talsera. He didn’t need anybody. He could go out on his own, start his own company and compete with Talsera. He had some Talsera passwords he was already using, and with them he could easily sabotage any of their projects. Maybe even grab one of their projects out from under them. He had the power to leave little time bombs here and there, no problemo. He sat up straighter in his chair, shrugged his bony shoulders.

‘You think we’d level charges like this without proof, Vikram?’ Shivani snarled.

‘Fuck it. I am resigning. I am so out of this place!’

Shivani watched him standing there. He’s crazy, she thought. He’s totally lost it. The sooner he’s out of the building the better. ‘Okay, Vikram,’ she said. ‘Turn in your ID badge and sign the papers. Priyanka?’

Priyanka passed the papers across the table: a non-solicitation agreement and a standard letter of resignation.

‘After you have signed, Hari Bhaiyya will help you clear out your desk and see you to the door. We’ll send you home in a taxi one last time.’

Shaitan Vikram wasn’t listening. He was bent over the table signing the papers as fast as he could. He had a plan. He had the passwords. He could read anything he liked, post anything he liked and now all he wanted was revenge …

 

Click here for Chapter 1

 

 

 

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The Crimson Garter
Lucire has frequently covered ballet and travel, and we’ve reviewed hundreds of books. As a treat to readers, we present our full serialization of The Crimson Garter, book one of the Captain Blackpool trilogy, by travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudonymously as Lovejoy
Chapters 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18