LIVING Shaitan Vikram resurfaces in the third part of our serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker. Vikram is about to fire another shot at his former employer, Talsera, on its project for Dutch firm RoodInfo
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
The young man sat on the open veranda, sipping tea and staring at the marble floor. The veranda fronted a three-storey house on a tree-lined street in one of the residential districts of Gurgaon that had been hurriedly built in the last decade and was already showing the ravages of harsh weather and pollution. But the porch was shady and the afternoon mild, and from his elevated position, he watched the occasional passage of cars and bicycle rickshaws and considered his options for the future. For a handsome man of 26 years, he seemed overly troubled. His concern centred on a young woman inside the house, someone he thought about constantly now. He had grown particularly fond of her as the months had passed, more than any other person he had ever known.
Now, as he waited for her outside Gupta Aunty’s PG, where the young woman lived, his mind went back over the hours they had spent shoulder-to-shoulder working late nights at the Talsera office, and how their affection had grown, over tea breaks and stolen glances at company events. He knew that he now watched her jealously during her salsa classes, and the irrational rush of possessiveness he felt when another developer would stop by the lunch table to speak to her about an inconsequential project detail.
It was the first time in his life that he had looked at another person in such a way. He was suddenly, acutely aware of everything about her—how easily amused she was by the dumb jokes her friends told, how she always added three sugars to her coffee, the graceful way her slim fingers danced over the keyboard, how she found time to stop at the temple and ask for Krishna’s blessings, how softly she spoke to anyone who sought her counsel, how seriously she took her job, how everyone seemed to love her but none so much as he did. Her every aspect fascinated him. He found himself transfixed by the way the afternoon light fell on her hair, or the colour of the shawl she chose, the melody of the popular songs she hummed, or the lightness of her step as she drifted among the cubicles.
Love was a word he had never before entertained, but in Adita’s case it had appeared one day, in a flash like sudden lightning. He had taken his time to declare it to her. He endured it for countless dark nights, lying alone in his small bed in his tiny room in the apartment he shared with his friends, wondering and wondering before finally blurting it out to her one evening as he escorted her to the cab. She had stopped in her tracks and admitted the same was true for her, and it opened the floodgates of complications—how were they going to continue under the circumstances?
He was not worried about his parents. He knew they would understand, since they themselves had a love marriage, an act at first opposed by their own parents, and not typical of their generation. His father owned a small marble cutting and trading business in Ahmedabad. His mother had given up a career to raise her children. They had sometimes broached the subject of marriage with Ravi, but he had always said he wanted to wait.
Adita’s family was certainly going to be infinitely more difficult. Her family came from a tiny town outside Jaipur, a very conservative place where they had been living for more than a century. Even without asking her, they had already selected a groom for her. She was to return home during Diwali to meet her future in-laws. It was unthinkable for her to defy her parents. But now she had fallen in love.
Two weeks earlier, Adita had sat helplessly inside her room, in a shaky old chair at a weathered wood table. She needed to make her father understand she lived in a big city where women now married the man of their choice and that there was nothing wrong with love marriages or marrying outside one’s caste. They would need to understand. After all, it was they who had sent her to the school where her marks bettered all the boys’, they who had encouraged her to crack IITJEE, and they who had sent her away from home to study once she had cleared the exam. If she earned and sent a decent amount each month, did she not also have the freedom to choose her husband?
Dear Papaji, thank you for your last letter. I apologize for not writing back as quickly as I have always done. Actually, we have been finishing a large project at work and I have been really busy with it …
She hesitated and looked at the hollow words she had written. He would see through them. She crumpled the paper into a ball, tossed it in the rubbish and started over again.
Papa-ji, you have always taught me to follow my heart and speak honestly …
Again she discarded the paper and stared down at a new blank sheet. The enormity of her decision was suddenly clear to her. She was trying to move heaven and earth at the same time. Tears appeared in her eyes, fell on the page, tiny pearls among the light blue lines. For these past two years she had lived at Gupta Aunty’s PG, with a few other girls. They sometimes stayed out all night with their boyfriends. She had remained single all the time, but now together she and Ravi would make their own beginning.
Out on the porch, Ravi considered the pain he knew she was going through. She had written to her father two weeks earlier, but no reply had come yet. He hoped that she had found the right words. He had big plans for the night: a visit to their favourite aloo-tikki stall, then a rickshaw to the mall where he was going to show her the ring he had chosen at a jeweller’s store, and then a romantic movie at the theatre. He felt an innocent elation at the thought of their elbows touching, of their hands finding each other in the darkness. Perhaps tonight they would discover a moment to kiss. He was sure she would cry during the blatantly sentimental scenes, as she always did. Later he would drop her at the door of her residence, and under the leafy shadows created by moonlight he would kiss her again and say goodnight until the morning.
Safe in his fortress of solitude, the Shaitan Vikram plotted. After leaving Talsera he had spent countless hours in the same dark space, reading, watching, waiting. He had left Talsera with passwords nobody knew he had taken and he could read anything on Talsera’s net, even private interactions between the very people who had forced him to leave. He knew where the bugs were in the RoodInfo project, and had left a few time bombs of his own in the code, let them figure that out. And then there were his anonymous blog posts. He wanted to ruin the Destroyer, drive the client into his own virtual arms and take the project away from Ricky Talsera, all the while unknown, unseen, untraceable, invincible, undefeated. Once he had accomplished his sinister aims, they would all be left shaking their heads in wonder: ‘What the hell happened?’ But they would never find out. Vikram would be a digital spectre, no trail left behind, his identity forever a mystery. All the profits would be his and only his, everything transferred to hidden accounts, moved from bank to bank, impossible to trace. He would build a secret palace somewhere far from Gurgaon and from there would operate his own global empire. He would fly first-class, party with movie stars in his own nightclub and drink seven-year-old single malt whiskies surrounded by the hippest people.
He opened his anonymous Hotmail account and began to write a new blog post.
Hate it here at Areslat. The managers are useless and the senior partners pitiless. They act like they care about their people, but to them no one really matters. They demand late nights and weekend work and people actually go along with it. The top dog says he is interested in everyone. But try and talk to him, he does nothing. They put you with mentors who steal all the credit.
This Dutch project is a joke. It’s badly written, filled with bugs. They tell the client it’s ready for release, and then they run around bumping into each other to get it looking like it’s done. Big status review tomorrow, and everything’s a mess. The remote sync is definitely not working, for example, and how can it? It’s designed wrong. Let’s see if the client finds out.
Shaitan Vikram hit the ‘Publish’ button and the message uploaded instantly. He smiled to himself, gave off with a sinister cackle, logged out and loaded up the latest version of World of Warcraft. A little game for old times’ sake. He called himself KnightTuring. He would blow away a few armies and later get back to the RoodInfo sabotage. In many ways he preferred blowing up the real world to the virtual world. The Destroyer and Ricky Talsera had ruined his life, and now he had a clear mission: to destroy Talsera and thrust upon Ricky a humiliating defeat. Much like the dragon he was about to slay with his exceptionally large battle axe.
‘Someone has definitely been reading our internal mail,’ Jaitendra said, in his matter-of-fact way, as if he were discussing the weather. He was seated at the chaiwallah’s, in his usual red plastic chair, with a bag of tikka masala chips open on the table in front of him. He held up the bag for Ricky Talsera, but Ricky didn’t take any. ‘IT sent a group of dummy messages and somehow figured out that the guy has been reading everything. The problem now is that we know the blogger knows but we can’t let on that we know or he will know we know.’
Ricky Talsera sipped his chai. It was early evening and a more leisurely rhythm prevailed on the deserted streets. A twitching dog slept on its back next to an orderly row of two-wheelers. Overhead, tall swaying eucalyptus boughs loomed, their leaves casting flickering irregular lattices of orange and black on the street below. From down the road they could hear the tinny sound of a Punjabi song on the radio. Somewhere in the distance two men argued about the outcome of a test match. Nobody bothered them. ‘We must keep our letters looking like business as usual,’ Ricky said. ‘Until we locate this creep and shut him down, we can’t suddenly stop talking about RoodInfo among ourselves. We will have to keep our suspicions hidden and our messages vague. From now on, all our real communication will have to be done face to face.’
‘Correct,’ said Jaitendra.
Across the street, Security Guard No. 8 Raheem watched them through the tiny window of his wooden shack by the entrance. Very unusual, he thought, both sirs meeting two days in a row. He and his colleague Security Guard No. 13 Vartan concluded that it had been months since they had seen this happen.
Ah, the dinner table, centrepiece of Rajan Abraham’s enviable home life. His daughters—the younger one an embodiment of mischief at 10, her sister a brooding mass of teenage hormonal activity—incessantly delighted him with their theatrics while their mother demonstrated her towering managerial skills and culinary artistry. Perfect world! This was Rajan’s private theatre to which he alone was audience, he alone a witness to the timeless and epic struggle between the mother and the daughters, who would all be vying for Daddy’s attention. What a blissful position, Rajan thought. A man with two daughters is truly blessed. He had only just speared a tender morsel of chicken and had added a touch of Nalini’s famous pickle when his Blackberry which sat by his water glass began to buzz and slide towards the edge of the table. It was a message from Ricky.
He opened it immediately, force of habit after so many years of working together. ‘Sorry I need to read this,’ he apologized to the three phoenixes who watched him expectantly. The buzzing had interrupted an urgent conversation about new outfits to be purchased for Diwali. ‘It’s from Ricky.’
Rajan leapt out of his chair and walked to the terrace where reception was good.
Someone’s hacking our email. I have some ideas. Can you talk now?
He hit the autodial and heard Ricky’s mobile ringing. How different the old times were, he thought when there were no cell phones. Two-year wait for landlines, and two-hour VSNL network outages which everyone loved because they thought of them as a nice little break. Now Ricky Talsera, no matter where he was, was always seconds away.
‘Raj, where have you been?’ Ricky said when he picked up the call.
‘Mostly reviewing RoodInfo and rehearsing with the team. I think we’re looking good. You saw those ugly blog posts?’
‘Of course I did. People can’t stop talking about them. Do you have an idea who might be behind them?’
‘Needs to be someone with inside knowledge. Seems like someone who has worked on the project from the start.’
‘It cannot be the Destroyer. She wouldn’t be killing her own commissions. Unless she’s about to jump ship on us, but I don’t believe that is the case. The blogs are pretty technical. My hunch is that it has to be a techie. I think I know who it is.’
Rajan Abraham went silent. Immediately a text appeared on Ricky’s handheld screen.
Rajan: Let’s SMS folks around.
Rajan: Put a detective on him, have him watched. Do the same for our foreign friend.
Ricky: I’ll get Dilbar on it immy
Rajan: Can IT track the hacker?
Ricky: One guy says he thinks he knows how
Rajan: Try it
Ricky: Will call now
‘Raj, you guys need to come over for dinner, like in the old days. Shaalu says it’s been too long.’
‘I know. I don’t have to tell you how crazy things are at the moment. The kids are growing up. And my house is always like a railway station, everybody coming and going. And boy has our company changed. You grow this fast, things get kind of out of control.’
‘I know. You remember when we first started? You used to unlock the front office gates every morning. Thank goodness Hari Bhaiyya does it now.’
‘Oh, yeah, I remember how crazy we were back then. Used to even work on national holidays!’
Rajan laughed. ‘Man, I miss those days.’
Ricky paused for a moment, reflecting. ‘And do you remember those insane marathon ping-pong games we used to have?’
‘Oh yes! People would always line up for a turn. At least we have two tables in the canteen now.’
‘Rajan, do you remember Harinder? That new guy last year who said he could beat everyone? I think he worked on RoodInfo for a while.’
‘Yes, no one liked him at first, did they?’
‘No. But it amazed people when he beat them all left-handed. Turned out he’d played at state level in school. People kind of resented that.’
‘But they loved to watch him play,’ Raj said. ‘So whatever happened to him?’
‘Infy, I think. He’s down in Bangalore now.’
‘Hey, wait, if he started on the RoodInfo project, maybe he’s the blogger?’
‘I don’t think so. He ultimately made friends here, and he didn’t leave with any grudges. Besides, the project has come a long way since he left. I don’t think it’s Harinder.’
‘Maybe HR should call him and see what he’s up to.’
‘Maybe Khaneja should. Pretend we want to hire him again. Find out if he knows anything. What’s that noise?’
‘Nalini and the girls, arguing about Diwali. I must get back and mediate. It’s my money they’re fighting over after all. Chal yaar, talk to you later. I gotta go handle this or else it’s gonna cost me a fortune.’
Danny Khaneja sat in his office, his phone glued to his ear. As usual, he had a diverse list of timely items. As always, Danny needed to work on them in his own way, at his own speed.
Khaneja was the first person Ricky and Rajan had called many years ago, after founding the company. Khaneja had taken a big chunk of equity in exchange for his business savvy and contacts. He was a silent owner, and yet a driving force in the company. He liked Ricky and Rajan, and he liked letting them run things. He acted as the go-to guy, the problem solver, the big-picture strategist, the occasional henchman. And he relished the freedom his low profile afforded him. People knew he influenced policy, but they did not know how he fit into the hierarchy. He was loved by some and unknown by others, and consequently happily misunderstood. It had always been thus, and he loved it that way. He dialled the first number on his hit list.
‘Hello, you have reached the offices of Dr Narayan at the Friends Colony Clinic for Reversal of Ageing. I am presently unable to speak to you, so please leave me a message after the tone. If this is an emergency, you may dial star and my service will page me. If you wish to make an appointment, press the hash key.’
‘Doc, Danny Khaneja here. Listen, you old sawbones, a lady is in her doctor’s office after an exam. Doctor says, "I’m sorry to tell you this but you’re going to die in six months." Lady says, "Well I want a second opinion!" So the doctor says, "Oh yeah, here’s a second opinion: you’re ugly." Call me when you can. Same number as usual.’ Click.
Danny made his next call.
‘Namaskar, Hotel Delhi Maharajah Palace. May I help you?’
‘I’d like to arrange a taxi this afternoon for your guest Mr de Vries, please.’
‘Mr de Vries-ji has checked out, sir.’
Danny Khaneja sat upright, stunned. Hesitated.
‘Mr Jan de Vries from Rotterdam?’
‘I am sorry. He checked out this morning. Has changed to the Radisson Gurgaon.’
‘Theek hai, thank you,’ Danny said and hung up. Nice of him to let us know, he thought. I think it’s time to check with the Destroyer. It’s a pain to talk to her, but I’m sure she knows what is going on with de Vries.
Danny dialled Hari Bhaiyya. ‘Hari, I need you to find where Shaitan Vikram lives these days and keep an eye on him.’
‘Theek hai,’ said Hari Bhaiyya. ‘You know the driver Suresh? He saw him recently. I will take his help and find Vikram for you.’
Danny hung up. I’m sure you will, he thought.
In room 481 at the Radisson Gurgaon, Jan de Vries lay peacefully soaking in his bath. Things seemed to be going well now that he had escaped that rat-hole of a hotel. He had gotten drunk with Shivani the previous night. She’d gone home in her own car quite late. He had made an early trip to the old hotel in the morning to retrieve his bags. But the jet lag had kicked back in, and he had returned to the Radisson and immediately run himself a hot bath. Suddenly, his titanium Vertu phone buzzed. It was an SMS from ‘Competition’.
I have some imp information for u, useful before your Talsera meeting later today. It is time we met in person. KnightTuring
De Vries smiled pleasantly to himself. Things were getting interesting. Let’s see what the competition has to offer, he thought. Let’s get a look at them up close. Shivani said the status review is going to go fine. Perhaps there is something else I need to know before I walk into that room.
Rotterdam had been forwarding him the negative blogposts about Talsera, but de Vries hadn’t thought much of them. They didn’t reveal sufficient information. He had plenty of experience with disgruntled employees and knew enough to discount whatever internet posts like this had to say.
But, he still wanted to check out this KnightTuring company. Maybe they really had something to offer. He wondered if he would finally be able to talk Shivani into the sack after all these years.
Jan de Vries heaped a load of bath bubbles onto his head in utter contentment and sunk down into the deliriously warm water until he was completely submerged.
‘Let me off here,’ Priyanka said to the driver. ‘And now remember what I am telling you. Drive some distance behind me as I walk. If you see any dog get near me, come to my help quick, quick. I think I will reach the cab pickup point in ten minutes.’
With this, she stepped out of the car and peered cautiously in both directions. Nothing suspicious. It was 6.50 a.m. Earlier, before she had left home, she had chosen a length of stick from her garden, something she could wield if the dog got too close. She was wearing her running shoes just in case. She did not know how large a dog to expect. Pushpa had neglected to provide its description in the issue tracker. In her imagination Priyanka visualized a terrifying creature out of the movie called The Hound of the Baskervilles, a huge, rabid mass of fur with blazing eyes, sharp, glistening teeth, wildly barking, rushing towards her. She clutched the stick tightly in her right hand and set off down the road with admirable determination.
To her left she caught sight of the house where Pushpa lived, a multi-storeyed bland structure that could be both 40 years old or brand new. You could never tell a building’s age in Delhi. Pushpa would be upstairs at the breakfast table or brushing her hair at the moment. The Talsera cab would pick her up in 45 minutes. Priyanka recalled the report from HR which she had studied the night before.
Pushpa says a wild dog threatens her on the way to the pickup point in the morning. Wants the cab to pick her up from her place. Says she is afraid to walk. I have temporarily approved a driver pickup because of her seniority.
But, the other two girls on Pushpa’s route are quite upset she gets a pickup while they don’t. I have received complaints from both of them on this. I spoke to Pushpa, but she insists the dog frightens her. She says the route is very unsafe.
True, it was not the prettiest of streets. All manner of buildings stood on either side. Businesses lined the street level, most shut securely behind metal shutters, a succession of identical red telecom logos painted outside on each. On the walls and pillars of the street, thousands of other advertising signs had been plastered, covering every available inch. Stretched digital banners illustrated with garish photography competed with hand-made signs and peeling paint for space everywhere. Dangling power and telephone wires hung randomly, dangerously like draped black spaghetti. Balconies strewn with laundry hung out to dry on metal wires, and told a thousand life stories of the inhabitants of each house.
Some businesses—roadside food stalls, pharmacists, dairies, tailors, and mechanics—had opened early and awaited the first customers of the day. Out at the edge of the pavement, the fruit and vegetable sellers had set up their carts stacked high with pyramids of fresh produce. Two cows sprawled peacefully next to a long puddle, their jaws rotating in unison. Traffic was minimal; the streets were deserted except for a few cycle rickshaws, careening school cabs and occasional scooters. People stood in line at a small corner shrine.
A city awakening. It was about the most non-threatening scene Priyanka could imagine. A few stalls down a shopkeeper stood at a single gas stove, with layers of eggs stacked neatly to his left. The sound of hooves momentarily distracted her: an equestrian on a freshly groomed and plaited white horse galloped by, frisky in the morning, headed for his first wedding of the day; she admired the professional way the rider sat on his horse, so regal and straight-backed.
‘Bread omelette?’ the egg man offered.
Priyanka sized him up: gaunt, sparse moustache, sinewy forearms, open collar white khadi shirt, wrinkled khaki trousers; probably here every morning, has a lot of eggs to sell, must be popular. ‘Thank you,’ she answered. ‘I have already had my breakfast. I want to take some paranthas with me to my office. Where can I get good ones?’
‘There’s a man down by the bus stop. He uses good ghee. Try his radish paratha.’
‘Is it always so busy this early?’ she asked.
‘This is busy? In one hour you won’t be able to even cross the road!’
‘I hope there are not many dogs around,’ Priyanka ventured. ‘I am quite frightened of them.’
‘No,’ the man protested. ‘No dogs here. We scare them away with sticks and they never come back.’
‘Hmmm, thanks,’ she said and walked to the paranthawala’s stall. The omelette seller had been correct: the paranthas smelled delicious. She ordered a few to carry with her. As the paranthawala began to shape the dough and wrap it around the filling, she looked around again, observing the route Pushpa did not want to walk.
‘This is such a quiet street right now,’ she said to him. ‘But it must get quite crowded later, no?’
The man looked up from making dough balls. ‘Yes, not very busy in the morning generally,’ he said. ‘But by afternoon it is jam-packed. I get a huge crowd at lunch. Touch wood!’
‘Are there any dangerous dogs here?’
The paranthawala regarded her curiously. ‘Are you from some government office?’ he asked. ‘The Municipal Corporation or some NGO?’
Priyanka laughed, instantly disarming the man. ‘No,’ she said innocently. ‘I’m just afraid of dogs.’
The man concentrated on the paranthas, waiting for the correct moment to turn them on the tava. Their aroma was intoxicating. He did not look up. ‘No dangerous dogs here,’ he said simply. ‘You should not be so scared of things.’
‘Your paranthas smell so good!’
‘Our family recipe,’ he looked up and grinned.
Some schoolgirls now marched in groups along the lane, their uniforms freshly pressed, their sashes expertly draped to fall shoulder to opposite hip, their hair done into two tight braids. I had a uniform like that once, Priyanka thought. I never knew how adorable they looked. The schoolgirls did not appear concerned in the slightest about hostile animals.
She glanced behind and saw her car holding back at an appropriate distance. A typical neighbourhood, she thought, nothing bad seems to be going on here. A hundred metres down, at the end of the road, next to a stretch of open fields, she could see the spot where the Talsera cab stopped. Priyanka steeled herself. This is the last stretch, she thought. If the threatening canine is waiting to attack, the stand-off would occur here.
She paid the man, stowed away the paranthas in her shoulder bag, hefted her stick and resolutely went forward to see if Pushpa was labouring under a hallucination or simply telling a magnificent fib so she didn’t have to walk.
‘Khaneja, Narayan here. Getting back to you finally. Sorry, I was away for the week at a conference in Singapore. You never saw so many plastic surgeons in one place, hahaha. Did you get in another fight with a Nigerian? I hope not. I thought you healed up fine last time. Listen, a guy walks into a doctor’s office. The doctor says, "I’ve got good news and bad news." Guy says, "What’s the bad news?" Doctor says, "You’ve only got six months to live." Guy says, "Oh my God, then what’s the good news?" Doctor says, "See that really cute nurse out there?" Guy says, "Yeah …" Doctor says, "I’m sleeping with her." Hahaha! Anyway, I hope you are behaving yourself. Stay off the pain killers. Try me tonight at home, and please keep out of trouble. I don’t want to have to stitch you up again.’
Shivani regarded her naked self in the mirror. Perhaps she had put on a few pounds since returning to India. A small roll of fat had certainly grown around her middle. She wondered if it would prevent her from landing a captain of industry who could keep her in style for the rest of her life.
She examined her boobs carefully, pushing the skin above each in turn, then both together, wondering if a little lift was needed. It was certainly affordable enough and she even knew of a fine clinic outside Geneva where she could hide away for two weeks after the surgery.
The woman in the mirror had little in common with the naive girl who had joined Talsera after her bachelor’s so many years ago. That was a girl who only wore cheap denims and embroidered salwars and kept her long hair braided down her back. She remembered all too well interminable days of bad clothes and awful washrooms and network outages and rickety old office vans.
In those days, Talsera was rapidly growing, and there was more work than people to do it. You took whatever job was handed to you. Within a few months of her joining, she found herself dispatched to Holland to manage a project for a Dutch company called RoodInfo. A 22-year-old girl who had never been outside India, who had never lived alone, was suddenly travelling in jets and modern trains and living in a sublet apartment in Amsterdam. She would even sometimes venture to nearby countries with her RoodInfo friends. Everywhere she encountered people drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, and soon she joined in.
It was a dream existence, a living out of fantasies she had only seen in movies. But the dream came to an abrupt end during a phone call with her mother, who revealed the search was on for a prospective groom, and that she and father wanted her married by the end of the year. Of course she had no desire to marry so soon. But it was unthinkable for Shivani to refuse her mother and father. In a kind of wild desperation she endeavoured to live her unrestrained life to its fullest, for she knew she had only a few months of this freedom left. She pictured herself domesticated, married off to a suitable stranger, thousands of miles from the glamorous cities she had come to know. So she spent the time remaining in Europe staying out late, and without knowing it a hardness developed in her heart. An obvious aggression gradually became part of her ordinary manner. If she ultimately was to give up this professional life, she thought, then she would take no prisoners. This attitude infected her work, and she soon gained the reputation as a vicious player who would do anything in business to win. She did not let on when she learned that people at the home office were now calling her the Destroyer.
Perhaps it was her overt toughness and sudden transformation which caught the attention of Jan de Vries, the CEO of the very company she was working with in Holland. He had started out with her rather formally, but then began to invite her to lunch every week, each time a new restaurant, and always the finest ones. At first, she met his interest with professional eagerness. They sampled dining rooms in classic hotels, tried local delicacies at country inns and ordered dishes with unusual names at luxury châteaux. Eventually she began to meet him in other cities as well. He covered all her expenses, and she always had her own hotel room.
Jan de Vries was worldly and Shivani observed him closely. He knew how to talk to a sommelier, which fork to use, which wine to order and he always knew the fruits in season so he could order the sweetest desserts for her. He also proved to be a wealth of other unexpected information.
‘See how elegant that Italian woman looks?’
‘Jan, how can you tell she is Italian?’
‘Look at her shoes, her bag, the tailoring of her leather jacket and the scarf. Florentine? Milanese? Definitely not from the south.’ De Vries refilled her glass with bubbly.
‘And what about that man over there, what do you think, Jan?’
‘Oh, he is a Brit, isn’t he? Looks like a shady banker moving some big money around. Well, the shoes are right, and he has a bad haircut; an old bespoke pin-stripe, but good cloth, and it’s double-vented, probably Savile Row.’
‘Jan, you amaze me.’
‘Shivani, dear, it would be a tragedy to let the last of this noble Cliquot go to waste. After all, it’s the perfect pairing with your tarte aux fraises du bois.’
After enough of these long, lingering lunches, it became unmistakably clear what he wanted from her in Amsterdam. She began to detect a pattern in his behaviour; it was quite predictable. He would first converse about interesting things during the meal, as he filled her full of expensive wine, and then over the desserts he would ask her—rather bluntly, sometimes crudely, to come back to his room with him. She would always refuse. He was so old, and from the west, and was married. Yet, in a disarming way, she found de Vries attractive. He was a source of amazing weekend trips, remarkable meals and a wealth of reliable industry information.
By the time the project wound down and she was assigned next to go directly to Silicon Valley, California on a new project, her initial respect for him had turned to disdain. She told him what she thought of him without restraint. The more searing and scathing her criticism became, the more he seemed to like it. There was no sport in taunting him. She decided he would never get her into bed.
She said an abrupt goodbye to him in Amsterdam. It was over lunch at La Rive, at the Amstel Intercontinental. He had chosen a table overlooking the river. He took the news coolly, congratulated her and said he hoped they would stay in touch. Shivani said she was sure they would. He asked her if she would consider more work on the RoodInfo account, he would make certain the next contract was a big one. Talsera was bidding on a new project with them. He had the power to throw it her way. She said that was fine with her, but he should not count on seeing her all that much if that were to happen. The next day she flew off to America, her first time there. She was 25 years old.
In California fate again intervened. Mother and Father had gone off on one of their annual pilgrimages to a famous shrine in Karnataka. There had been a mad stampede of worshippers during the walk down from a holy cenotaph, and many tragic deaths, among them Shivani’s parents, occurred during the mishap on the faraway hillside. Shivani was summoned back to Delhi for the funeral, but things were so complex she could not immediately settle their affairs. So she returned to California and lost herself in her work, awaiting the Byzantine paperwork of the estate to be assembled.
A young Indian programmer at Ebay in Mountain View appeared to take pity on her, and comforted her in her hour of grieving. He was so handsome and persuasive that she fell into a torrid affair with him, losing her virginity in a blaze of passion. The next few months were like a Bollywood romance, with deep philosophical conversations played out on dramatic Californian backgrounds: Big Sur, the Golden Gate Bridge and Disneyland. He took her shopping to Gap, Banana Republic, Abercombie & Fitch, and Nike. They watched American TV shows together in the evening and jogged on the running trails along the San Francisco Bay in the morning. They went to uncensored adult movies. Shivani even tasted hamburgers, beef and all. She was now accustomed to making her own decisions.
But when the project had come to its end, and Shivani needed to pack and return to India, the programmer from Ebay took the news differently than she expected.
‘Shivani,’ he said, looking up from his Game Boy. ‘You go back and do what you have to do. It’s not gonna be easy, but I know you can do it. When it’s all settled, call me up and we’ll hook up again,’ and he disintegrated a row of aliens on the screen, in a fiery blast. ‘And can you grab a Dr Pepper for me the next time you come back from the kitchen, naaa?’
Stung by his dispassionate words, she returned to India angered, where avaricious lawyers and cousins descended on the estate. It turned her into a relentless fighter, but she won. Mother and Father had lived comfortably, it turned out, and she was shocked to discover at their passing just how many millions of rupees and dollars and euros they had collected in substantial accounts all over the world. Since she was an only child, she had inherited everything, and she recognized from that point forward she would be on her own.
Late one night, at a hip Delhi nightclub, a Nigerian student sold her a small quantity of primo Colombian flake. She loved the effect it had on her. It became her habit, which could have gotten worse, but didn’t. During these go-go days, Shivani began to travel internationally to places like Taipei, New York and Los Angeles and the Côte d’Azur. She never called Jan de Vries again.
The woman she regarded in the mirror had certainly seen a bit of the world. She had joined Talsera with an original signing bonus of 500 Class A shares, which, while not representing major voting power, had become worth a small fortune over the years. She built up her savings over time and bought some land in Goa, and a nice Gurgaon apartment, which was rented out for a small fortune. She now wore Gucci pumps and M&S suits, was driven around the city by a personal driver in her own luxury car, she owned the biggest baddest Blackberry on the market and used a gold Ipod. Shivani peered at her grown-up body and face and her stylish short haircut. A closet full of pretty French clothes awaited her, and so did the tiny bottle of Phensedyl she always kept in her handbag. Life was a party.
Last night, Jan de Vries had emailed her out of nowhere to meet late at night and she had decided to give him another chance. Thanks to him, the second big RoodInfo project had come her way. Besides, her virginity was no longer an issue.
The evening had gone fine. As expected, he had tried to get into her pants, but she had rebuffed him as always. He was so intoxicated she had to steady him as he stumbled up to his room. He had tried to kiss her messily in the elevator, and on reaching the door to the room, he had attempted to drag her inside. But he was so ridiculous she had laughed at him, pushed him away, given his crotch an unexpected little squeeze, and left him tottering outside the room at 2 a.m. with a drunken hangdog expression on his face.
For the day’s status review, she was planning to wear something tight, black, suggestive, something that would show him a lot of leg. She picked her outfit, doused herself with Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker, and dressed in a hurry. She would need to confer with Ricky Talsera before the meeting, reassure him the client was happy and get his notes. Her Blackberry beeped from the bureau top. It was an SMS from Ricky.
De Vries has cancelled the status review again. says tmrw. any idea what is going on?
Postponed? What the hell was that all about? Nothing had been said last night. Shivani narrowed her thick eyebrows, pursed her Ultra Rouge lips. Her thumbs flew over the keypad.
will find out right now. call you later
She immediately dialled de Vries’s mobile phone. No answer. She called the Radisson switchboard, rang his room. No answer. Calm down, Shivani, she thought. He’s probably in the shower, or still asleep. Was he hiding something from me all evening? Why had he cancelled the status meeting?
Shivani called her driver and arranged to be at Radisson within half an hour so that she could extract some answers from her network of spies. After that, she would head to the office for a face to face with Ricky. Before she left her flat she logged onto her company email, where she found twenty forwards from different people, all with links to a particularly nasty blog post. Of course she immediately read it. The blogger intimated something was wrong with her!
Could it get any more complicated? Jan de Vries had disappeared into the ether, and somebody was repeatedly trashing Talsera in general, her project specifically and herself personally on the internet. ‘It could only be that little shit Vikram,’ she thought. She swore he would go down in flames if she found out he had anything to do with it. She opened the glassine envelope she kept in her make-up box, took a little pinch of the cocaine inside and sniffed it delicately, not a fat line like many of her club friends did.
Instantly she felt alive, awake and ready to take control.
Nineteen across, four letters, a Presocratic philosopher. Khaneja’s mind drifted back to his philosophy classes at Stanford. Xeno of Elea, he remembered with satisfaction, filling in the letters in the boxes.
Ding! He looked up from his International Herald–Tribune and caught sight of Jan de Vries exiting an elevator and striding through the Radisson Gurgaon lobby. He was dressed down—expensive jeans, Lacoste polo, a plaid silk blazer, Italian suede loafers with interlocking buckles, Ray-Bans. That was interesting: de Vries normally wore suits and ties. Khaneja ducked down behind his newspaper, but kept an eye out. De Vries traded a few words at the reception desk and a red-turbaned Sikh hotel driver in white uniform approached him. The two men left by the front doors. Danny Khaneja waited until they were out of sight; then crept up to the bell captain and held out his hand. The man shook it and expertly palmed the ₹500 note he had concealed there.
‘Karim’s in Old Delhi,’ he whispered. ‘White Ambassador. Number 2086. Surjit is driving.’ And he turned smartly to open the door of an arriving vehicle.
Well, well, Khaneja thought. Going sightseeing without telling us. See you there, asshole.
And he hurried to his car.
Shaitan Vikram took an auto-rickshaw to Dwarka Sector 9 Metro Station and boarded the metro from there. The ride to Rajiv Chowk, where he had to change trains, was long but it gave him time to review the situation, gloat a little. It had been a particularly satisfying phone call with Jan de Vries earlier. He had cloaked his voice with a gizmo he had unearthed at Nehru Place at Chatterjee Electricals. Mr Chatterjee, deluged by a sea of electronics in his tiny shop, had no idea of the value of the second-hand scrambling device. Vikram had snapped it up for ₹500, a fucking bargain for a miracle of engineering like that. Vikram’s natural voice perched midway between squeaky and screechy. Using the device, he listened to himself as Darth Vader. That was entertaining, but not quite right. So he tried to mix in a little Robo-Cop. That sounded better. He dialled de Vries’s number.
De Vries had immediately answered, ‘Hello?’ He sounded disoriented as if he had been napping.
‘Mr de Vries, this is your representative from KnightTuring.’
‘I wondered how you were going to pronounce that.’
‘KnightTuring,’ Vikram repeated forcefully. ‘There is a serious problem with the last release of the RoodInfo mobile app. It randomly over-bills 10 per cent of the transactions by 1·73 per cent, a near-imperceptible distortion. You of course know it’s already in production. Your current vendor didn’t even suspect it or test for it. All you need for your meeting today is the leverage this knowledge brings you. You would be able to squeeze the team any way you like after you reveal this. Which brings us to our contract. Send my down payment as we have discussed at your earliest convenience, €1,000. And it’s time we started some real business. But for that to happen you must ditch the other guys. As soon as they are out of the picture, you and I can do some serious damage in the world together.’
‘So far this is all conjecture,’ de Vries replied. ‘I won’t give money until the value of the information is proven.’
Vikram snickered. It sounded like Robo-Cop catching a chest cold. ‘Karim’s, near Jama Masjid,’ he said. ‘Be there at half past noon. Find the big restaurant, then turn right and go inside the little place on the left. Walk along the right side wall facing the kitchen, and then go up the stairs to this little dining area above. It’s kind of stuffy, but not too bad. Occupy a table for two and order lamb kebab and Pepsi if you want. Avoid the onions and the water of course. Wait for our representative. He will give you the information you need. Then you should be ready to do business.’ And hung up.
Vikram looked up at the Blue Line map. Twelve more stops to Rajiv Chowk, where he would change, then ride three stops to Chandni Chowk. He wore a new pair of Diesel jeans he had found at the Ambience Mall for ₹2,000 and a new Ralph Lauren shirt. His glasses were Spy Optics. His shoes were grey leather Converse high tops, which the salesman had assured him looked ‘killer’. A young woman in a parrot-green sari was seated next to him. She was reading a science textbook of some kind. Vikram snickered. The young woman got up and moved to another seat.
Vikram smiled. KnightTuring was about to strike again.
At that very moment, on the back seat of a white Ambassador snaking its way to Old Delhi, Jan de Vries sat, calculating. While he had little idea of where he was going, he somehow felt like a man in control. With the help of KnightTuring, he hoped to be able to manipulate Talsera. Cash was very tight at RoodInfo and he wanted to leverage every penny he could. If they were resistant or inept, he had the hungry newcomer ready to do business. And if KnightTuring turned out to be worthless, he would in any case pressure Talsera for better pricing. It was, as the Americans often said, a win–win situation.
After he had been through all the scenarios, he looked out the window at the city and was half-aghast at what he saw. He marvelled at the obvious energy of the place and the constant forward motion of its people. The car interior was clean enough but every little depression and pothole in the road rattled the vehicle or sent them flying. Even though the Sikh driver kept his mouth shut, the constant honking of horns continually unnerved him. He hoped that Karim’s was a calm spot where he would be able to get a good look at the man KnightTuring was sending with the secret information. Life, de Vries remembered, was theatre. And so on to the next act.
‘What do you mean, Karim’s?’ Shivani nearly screamed at the desk man at the Radisson Gurgaon, leaning over so that her nose nearly touched the tip of his. The man nervously pushed back his comb-over and tried not to look at her bosom. His hairline had evidence of a recent brilliant orange mehndi dye job. But his roots were black. His manager had already spoken to him about it.
‘Ma’am will please keep her voice down so as not to disturb the other guests,’ the man suggested meekly, looking around with real discomfort. Guests were staring; his manager was bound to hear about this. His life in the hospitality industry was over. He was never going to work in this town again. The thought went through his mind that he should pack up tonight and go live with his sister in Muradabad. Shivani resisted the urge to go ballistic.
‘Karim’s?’ she repeated. ‘What the hell is he doing at Karim’s?’
‘Madam, that is guest’s business.’
‘Call his driver right now.’
‘Mr de Vries does not carry a mobile?’
‘Of course he carries a mobile!’ Shivani said. ‘But I want to talk to the driver.’
‘If madam will give me her number I can SMS it to the driver and ask him to call you.’
Shivani felt her temperature rising. She glared even more threateningly at the desk man, who shrivelled further behind the counter. ‘Karim’s,’ she said. ‘That’s all you know?’
The deskman took out a crumpled handkerchief and mopped at his brow. ‘Yes, madam,’ he said. ‘That’s all I know.’
Shivani stormed out of the hotel and ordered her driver to take her to Chandni Chowk. She didn’t know what she was going to find there, but she already didn’t like it. She was aware they were about to stray into ugly congestion and that it would probably take her an hour to get to Jama Masjid.
After she left, the deskman called Danny Khaneja and told him everything that had transpired.
‘So Shivani has no clue either what her client is doing,’ Khaneja thought.
Khaneja was the first to reach Jama Masjid. He settled himself on the crowded steps of the masjid and waited among a throng of people. He didn’t quite know what he was waiting for. De Vries was not going to get there for a while, Shivani much later. But he knew de Vries would pass by the steps on his way to Karim’s and he intended to pick him up from there.
It was mid-day and Old Delhi was teeming with people of all ages, colour and class. A persistent din pervaded the scene—hawkers yelling at vendors, rag pickers competing with curio sellers, bicycle rickshaws and two-wheelers jostling for any empty space and beggars and street criminals chasing opportunity. Yet there was an implicit order in everything, secret systems which kept the wheels turning. Amid all the chaos, colours, smells and the general sensory bombardment, Khaneja felt a familiarity that he had never known when living overseas. Just then, steps below him, at the edge of the meandering crowd, something familiar caught his eye.
It was Shaitan Vikram. He was standing next to a trinkets’ seller, scoping out the territory outside Karim’s. It was a transformed Vikram. He wore designer jeans, a branded business shirt and pricey shades. But still the bad haircut and still easily distracted by his stomach. As if on cue, Shaitan Vikram looked at his watch and impulsively sat down in front of a chaatwala and ordered two samosas.
Khaneja used the opportunity to slide unseen into the passageway that led to Karim’s. He found a corner table in the big restaurant, a place where he could see everything, and dialled Jaitendra.
‘Guess who I just found,’ he said.
‘Shaitan Vikram?’ Jaitendra said.
‘How did you …?’
‘Suresh. He’s watching you right now, but you won’t be able to see him. Shall I call him off?’
‘Yes, do that. I’m at Karim’s. How soon can you get here? I want you to take over Vikram.’
‘Ten minutes? OK, so Vikram belongs to you. I’ll stay with de Vries. Oh, and the Destroyer is also coming to the party. But you of course already know this, don’t you?’
‘Correct,’ Jaitendra said.
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From issue 35 of Lucire
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
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