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The Hacker

LIVING In this latest excerpt from travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker, Shaitan Vikram and Talsera all await Jan de Vries, who has also caught the attention of a Delhi police officer

 

 

 

Previous page: Chapters 5–8

Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

One day earlier, 350 km away in a remote village surrounded by farms in rural Rajasthan, two men had said goodbye to their families and had then set out on foot. They carried little luggage—a small cloth bag slung over the shoulder of the older man and a blue nylon gym duffel with a white Nike swoosh ported by the younger one. The men walked for two hours over hilly terrain, past a succession of rice fields, around a small mountain to reach a major two-lane artery. They then walked to the spot where rural buses stopped. Since it was still some time before the bus to the Gangapur Train Station arrived, the two squatted by the roadside and waited.

The older man, a landholder named Mr Raj, was portly but not fat, and wore a white turban and an ancient grey kurta-pyjama suit, over which he had added a tan pin-striped Jawaharlal jacket which was showing its age. He was 52 years old, his eyes seemed extra large for his face, magnified under huge aviator shaped lenses, and his white beard was meticulously trimmed. He was accustomed to getting his way.

The younger man, his nephew named Mahatel, was known mostly for his ability to throw his weight around. He looked all of his 18 years, an angry product of wasted ambition and brief education. He wore trousers whose cuffs bunched at his ankles, dusty sandals, and a Megadeth T-shirt. Around his shoulders was draped a faded paisley shawl. There were scabs and bruises on his face and forearms, evidence of a recent altercation. He did not look particularly dangerous, but he was. As they walked, the men did not speak.

 

Shaitan Vikram finished his samosas, smacked his lips and used his handkerchief to wipe his hands. He looked at his Swatch watch. Plenty of time for de Vries to appear. Vikram knew the European dude wouldn’t dare venture into Old Delhi on foot. He looked at the samosa wallah. ‘Give me another one,’ he said.

 

Out at the vast entry to Old Delhi, cars jockeyed for parking, taxis and buses disgorged passengers bound for Jama Masjid and pedestrians gesticulated as they vociferously negotiated with rickshaw wallahs. It was a scene which afforded immense pleasure to Subinspector Shamsher Singh, whose practised eye knew where every potential profit was to be found. His life was uncomplicated. He needed only to keep Ajit Hooda, the top boss of Old Delhi, happy; stay on top of collections; and keep the traffic flowing.

It was a little after midday when Subinspector Singh identified a white Ambassador in perfect repair, driven by a red-turbaned Sikh, which entered the chaotic lot and cruised into a parking spot. The driver, after paying the parking wallah, helped a firangi exit the car. The richly dressed man consulted with his driver, who arranged a cycle-rickshaw for him. The firangi climbed uncomfortably on to its hard seat and the rickshaw wallah began the bone-rattling start-and-stop ride into Old Delhi. Subinspector Singh smiled contentedly at the man. He motioned to a disreputable creature lurking close by, Lateef, a small-time drug dealer and professional scam artist who was a fixture of the neighbourhood. Gaunt and compulsive, with a full head of jet black hair, he always seemed to be either twitching nervously, or blinking his eyes, while hunching his bony shoulders, giving forth with pathetic little whimpers and gulps. He had no permanent address, no friends, no future, his sole material presence in the universe being a large and badly scratched red suitcase, which moved from place to place, in a harmonious synchronicity with Lateef’s erratic existence. Wherever the red suitcase lay, he lived. He slept in a succession of hovels, sometimes sharing a bed with a transsexual prostitute who took occasional pity on him. Lateef didn’t particularly like being favoured by Subinspector Singh, but he couldn’t refuse the man who held absolute power over his freedom. These days Lateef dreamed mostly of methamphetamine and continuously plotted how to get his hands on more of it. The subinspector had of recent been an occasional and unlikely source for it. However, the supply from him always came at a price.

Lateef cowered as he shuffled over to Singh. He was careful neither to touch him, nor to disturb the impeccable crease of his shirt.

Haanji, sahib?’

‘You see that white man in the cycle-rickshaw there?’ he asked, pointing his lathi in de Vries’s direction.

‘Yes. The gora, no?’

‘Yes. I want you to help him in any way you can.’

‘Ah, I understand. I am to help him.’

Subinspector Singh smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Offer him things, whatever he needs.’ And he pulled out a small plastic packet of white powder which he handed over to Lateef, who received it as if it was prasad. ‘If he doesn’t want help, slip this into his jacket. Understand?’

Lateef nodded his assent, put the packet in his pocket and scurried off into the crowd following the rickshaw. He had done this before for Subinspector Singh. He knew what was expected of him, and the consequences of not following orders. He would offer the man things.

 

Danny Khaneja snapped the first picture with his cellphone when he saw a low-life bother Jan de Vries on his way into the narrow passage that led to Karim’s. He seemed to be a very insistent beggar. Finding a cinematic quality in the scene, Khaneja switched over to the recording mode and zoomed in close, just in time to capture the beggar bumping the Dutchman and inserting a small white packet into his jacket pocket. De Vries disappeared hurriedly down the passageway and into the restaurant. Khaneja made himself invisible and followed. De Vries went up to the loft, took a seat, gave an order. Khaneja snapped a photo. Held still.

 

Shaitan Vikram saw the street scum talk to de Vries. Where’d that guy come from? Wouldn’t let him alone, wouldn’t let him pass by and kept talking to him until he got shoved out of the way. Served the loser right, Shaitan Vikram thought. He held back at the entrance and watched de Vries go in. Khaneja, unseen, snapped another photo. Vikram stood alone for a while in the passage. Then he went in the same way the Dutch guy did. Khaneja saw him sit down across from de Vries. The two men instantly began to talk.

 

Khaneja took a series of pictures, which neatly captured the clandestine episode—two men in costume playing roles, surrounded by working men, but oblivious of their surroundings, locked in their own conversation; one man passing a folded paper to the other; the other pocketing the paper; the two men getting up but not shaking hands.

When the two men exited, Khaneja followed them, hanging back into the passage just outside of the restaurant door. He caught a glimpse of Subinspector Singh handcuffing the beggar who had earlier accosted de Vries, attaching him to an iron grate where the passage faced the alley. His camera went click. He would piece all these people together later. He watched fe Vries get stopped by the police officer. His camera went click. For the moment, he decided to stay with the policeman, who was now in possession of de Vries anyway.

 

It was 4 a.m., and chilly, when Mr Raj and his nephew arrived at the Gangapur City Train Station. There were still some hours for the train to Delhi to arrive. So, they made up their simple beds under a jacaranda tree at the end of the platform and fell fast asleep. By 7 a.m., when they got up, the place was a sea of humanity. It was announced that the Delhi train was two hours late. Mr Raj and Mahatel went back to sleep. They knew the train would eventually arrive. Someone would offer Mr Raj a place in an unreserved coach, and four hours later they would be in Delhi.

 

Years earlier Subinspector Singh had learned a very useful English phrase. He had arrested a twenty-something American tourist purchasing bhang from a small-time dealer. The tourist didn’t recognize that Singh was actually doing him a favour. The dealer was a rough character with a bad reputation. The kid was better off with the police. So, he cuffed the young man, took him down to the station, put him in an interrogation room, gave him time to get nervous and then questioned him severely. Did he understand the seriousness of the charges against him? Yes, he did. Was he aware that the Indian courts could put him away for years, simply for possession of the illegal substance? Yes, he was aware of it. Did he also know that he may have to stay in jail for years even before his case was heard? Yes. And did he need to tell the young man the usual procedure for this kind of offence? No, it was not necessary; he would cooperate. Subinspector Singh searched the young man’s wallet, discovered he came from Oak Park, Illinois and had $250 in cash, two ATM cards and several thousand rupees.

‘I can suggest an alternative to the usual judicial process,’ he told the young man. ‘Just pay me a fine of $250 right now.’

What the young man replied, Subinspector Singh could not at first understand. He had used a term which Singh had never heard before. However, once it was explained to him, he found it a very useful linguistic flourish, and he remembered it at the oddest moments. Like minutes earlier when he had surreptitiously watched the geek and the European sit down together across a table at Karim’s. He knew he had to choose between pursuing Vikram or de Vries. It was another of those instances when he again recalled what the American had said to him years before: ‘Well, if you ask me, it’s a no-brainer.’

 

Jaitendra stared hungrily at the mutton burra kebabs which sat before Khaneja. ‘Those look good,’ he said. ‘The parantha looks good too.’

‘It just arrived,’ Khaneja said. ‘But our friend Vikram’s getting ready to move. No time to enjoy them. We ought to come here more often.’

Jaitendra tore off a piece of bread, pinched at a kebab and stuffed it into his mouth. ‘Mrr crdvat?’ he asked, chewing happily.

‘I don’t get you.’

‘Your drink?’ Jaitendra said, pointing at a full cup in the middle of the table. Khaneja shook his head no, shrugged. Jaitendra grabbed it and took a long pull off it, then made himself another kebab and bread, stuffed it into his mouth. Looked up. ‘He is moving. I’ll talk to you later.’ He took one more long draught on the cup and evaporated.

The man sitting next to Khaneja turned around and grabbed for his drink. He raised it to his lips and hesitated, looked inside the rim. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘My cup’s half-full. Somebody drank half my sherbet.’ He turned in all directions, looking for the culprit. Khaneja pretended disbelief, then ignorance. He could see above the man’s head that up in the loft Jan de Vries was now standing, preparing to leave. Khaneja’s cue. He watched de Vries carefully pick his way down the narrow stairs and out to the passage, turn left. The guy looked lost in thought. Khaneja gave him half a minute, then followed discreetly. But Khaneja again held back as soon as he rounded the final corner. Silhouetted at the far end of the passage stood the unmistakable figure of Subinspector Shamsher Singh. And he appeared to be caught up in a tense conversation with Jan de Vries.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

As he stood before the police officer in the passage, Jan de Vries remembered how strange it all seemed from the beginning. That invisible signals were being exchanged on all sides. The odd dialogue between the driver and the parking monitor. The strange dealing with the rickshaw wallah. And, most surprisingly, the beggar who accosted him with a succession of offers in surprisingly clear English. He had had to refuse [in order] a tour, naughty porn, a girl, hashish, bhang, coke, two girls, boys and finally virgins. Exasperated, he had had to shove the man out of his way.

All the more irksome was the meeting with the agent from KnightTuring. They’d sent some amateur messenger boy in stretch jeans who treated the whole thing like a Matt Damon movie. He sat down without a greeting and then immediately began to outline, in his difficult-to-understand accent, three new areas of vulnerability in the RoodInfo application. It took de Vries a moment to recognize the man was speaking English.

After handing him a folded paper containing essential information, the messenger said, ‘That’s all for now.’ And he hurriedly stood up, didn’t even shake hands, and got the hell out of Karim’s, even before the Dutchman could say bye. As de Vries sat there alone, he gradually became aware of his isolation and his vulnerability in the surroundings. Big moustached men talked loudly around him and the air in the loft hung thick with swirling unfamiliar aromas of breads and curries. The noise level was deafening. Nobody was speaking English. He must get out of this place quickly, head back to the Radisson and then deal with Talsera.

Was the messenger boy playing dumb? Did he know more than he let on? Maybe. Was he one of the geniuses KnightTuring claimed they had? ‘Jesus Christ,’ de Vries thought, ‘maybe it’s just him. What if that kid is the only genius?’

But once he had stood up from the table and threaded his way downstairs and out through the crowded doorway, as he started walking towards the end of the passage, a uniformed police officer stepped in front of him, the man who now blocked his exit.

 

At the Chandni Chowk Metro Station, Shaitan Vikram leapt aboard the train towards Rajiv Chowk. Jaitendra stayed behind him, unseen from the next car, observing his every move. Vikram plugged in his Ipod Nano, closed his eyes and retreated into his own world. His right knee did a little bop in place as he nervously jiggled his heel up and down to no apparent rhythm. With a little luck, Jaitendra thought, he will lead me to his new workplace where I may get to do some serious digging.

 

‘Hello, Khaneja? Narayan here. How come you never answer your phone? I received your text about a donation for that South Indian temple. Man, everybody in Delhi is asking me for Diwali rupees at the same time. What, you think I am made of money? Call me up when you can. By the way, you’re staying out of trouble, right? Hahahaha. Honestly, you need to get out and have some fun, man, good clean fun! You work too hard. Listen, I’ll talk to you later. I booked a tummy tuck in fifteen minutes. I’ll try you after dinner. I want to hear if my stitches are holding up on you. Hahahaha.’

 

Mr Raj got aboard the unreserved second class coach and found a compartment with some vacant space between an old man and a large woman in pink sari. Outside, chaiwallahs walked up and down the length of the train, halting at windows, dispensing scalding hot chai as indigent children scurried around the car wheels waiting for trash to fall. The woman in pink sari on Mr Raj’s left brought out an elaborate system of containers of food which she began to assemble and hand around. The old man on his right nodded off and rested his head on Mr Raj’s shoulder.

Mahatel could be observed outside to the right of the compartment door. He was already smoking cigarettes with some other men of his age, half of them hanging out the windows staring at women. The boy would come to no good, Mr Raj reflected. He could not succeed in school, could not join the family business. He could not be sent to an ashram. No rich family would marry their daughter to him. He is only good for one thing, fighting, and that is why I have brought him along. If he needed to offer up some pressure, the boy would serve. He would do as he was told. Mr Raj sincerely hoped the boy would not be needed, but it was better to have him to make a point. He looked around the crumbling train compartment, leaned his head against the old man’s and was instantly asleep.

 

Shivani seethed. She glowered as the car moved slowly, imperceptibly through endless lanes of traffic. She was boxed in by vehicles on all sides, caught between the looming wall of a rusted bus and a behemoth yellow lorry, marooned in a sea of ‘Horn Please’ trucks, two-wheelers buzzing by and cars everywhere else. She was a prisoner within her steel and glass fortress, confined in a climate-controlled, air-filtered and soundproofed prison on wheels. The car inched ahead. Stopped. Lurched forward. Halted abruptly. Frozen in time, the honking seemed to increase, and she felt she might remain stuck there forever. The horn-honking doubled. At this rate she would get to Karim’s only by dinnertime. And de Vries wasn’t taking her calls. She had even left him messages at the Radisson, SMSed him, emailed him. But nothing, no reply.

Woe to the ragged girl who stopped by the car window at that moment and tap-tap-tapped. She was rather hungry, but she needed to do another hour of begging before they would let her go and play. She was thinking of a sweet, and she was thirsty. She stared into the face of the rich woman behind the glass, a woman who looked like a movie star with bright red lips and eyes heavily made-up, and brought her finger tips together to point them at her mouth as she had been taught. For this, she received a look of venom, a dark, intense and angry glare. She fled. Shivani burned. The car did not move.

 

Alone in his Gurgaon office in Building 2, Ricky Talsera stared blankly at the white board facing his desk. He needed to look closely at the numbers and figures scribbled on it, but he couldn’t get interested. Ricky looked across inside the glass cabinet that had stacks of unread scientific journals, an array of trophies and awards commemorating triumphs long forgotten, T-shirts folded neatly into an orderly stack by Ms Briganza, artifacts and souvenirs handed over at competitors’ trade show booths and imprinted memo pads he hated to use because they said ‘Ricky Talsera, Founder’ on them. He was tired of giving away the usual swag. He wondered whether those objects even helped people remember Talsera at all.

Ricky shifted his attention back to the white board but still couldn’t focus. There was too much going on. De Vries had gone to Jama Masjid, and not for sightseeing—this much he knew from Khaneja’s and Jaitendra’s calls. Another nasty blog post had just appeared. Shaitan Vikram had resurfaced and seemed to be up to no good. The RoodInfo status review meeting’s schedule was again uncertain. The Destroyer hadn’t yet called in, for which he was infinitely grateful, though she was supposed to be keeping tabs on her client. It would be interesting to hear her explanations of what was afoot, he thought. Did she even know? And then there was the customary silence from Rajan Abraham: off somewhere with his team of nerds, coding some proof-of-concept using a new technology, trying to catch the hacker. Ricky would call them all in for a meeting later that day. His minimalist office was significantly larger in floor space than the first apartment he had ever rented. His office had four panes of tall windows overlooking trees, some construction visible, some open space and even some sky. People liked to meet here because there was so much daylight. His desk was an ocean of bleached blond wood and three rolling chairs stood in place side by side facing Ricky’s chair, spanning the length of the desk. Everything (bless Briganza!) was in order: whiteboard markers kept neatly in the pen cup, the temperature controller aligned with the mobile phone, aligned with the handset which dimmed the room lights, the wireless mouse in its place, the wireless keyboard clean and dusted, the calculator ready to use, the phone and its teleconferencing docking station all well arranged.

Ricky ignored the whiteboard. He picked up his mobile phone and dialled up Shaalu. She answered on the first ring.

‘How unusual to hear from you at midday!’ she said, clearly pleased.

‘I was just thinking about you. Umm, I guess I just wanted to tell you how much I love you, that’s all …’

Shaalu laughed. ‘Love you too. But I don’t think I can stay on the phone for long right now. Too much going on with the kids.’

‘I just needed to hear your voice.’

‘I’ll see you tonight, honey. We will switch off the phones and turn on the red light bulb.’

‘Now you’re talking,’ Ricky said.

 

Outside his office door Priyanka waited. Ricky had asked her to investigate Pushpa’s problem with the dog and she was ready to report. She consulted her wristwatch—three minutes to go before their appointment. His door was closed. Ms Briganza was nowhere to be seen. As happened quite frequently when she was waiting to meet Ricky, a movie which she had seen many years ago came back into her mind.

The movie took place in a typical Indian village. It began with the main character, a young doctor, strolling through town, saying good morning to those he met. He was obviously greatly respected. He sang a song which compared people to rays of sunshine. He had a wife who was very sick. In a series of flashbacks the film told the story of their courtship, struggle and marriage. A group of loveable secondary characters added to the tale which had many moments of great happiness and occasional sadness. Priyanka liked that part the most where the doctor stopped at a shop every Friday after work to take home his wife’s favourite sweets. A girl who worked in the kitchen secretly fell in love with him, but she was betrothed to a man whom she did not particularly like. The girl eventually agreed to a loveless marriage, and her husband soon showed himself to be a cad. Meanwhile, the doctor’s wife grew weaker and weaker. The doctor sang a poignant song which asked if the sun ever dims in the sky while the girl from the sweet shop sang her own lament overlapping his, asking why love never came to her.

The doctor’s wife eventually died. The girl’s unfaithful husband disappeared. She and the doctor started a chaste friendship but of course the townspeople misunderstood. Then one day her husband came back. He confided to the doctor he had a rare disease, and begged the doctor to not tell his wife about it. He later reformed and became best friends with the doctor. Then he died. One Friday the doctor passed by the sweet shop and impulsively decided to go in. The girl from the kitchen and the doctor realized they were in love, and the film ended with them singing about every day bringing a new sunrise. The film was called Raastey ka Gulab.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

The basement canteen quickly cleared after the bustling lunch hour. Only a single couple remained, seated across from each other at a table along the right hand wall. The young woman wore an orange long kurta with a blue churidar, and a modest peacock green dupatta. The boy seated opposite her wore faded blue jeans and a grey T-shirt with the word ‘Hero’ printed on it. They wished they could touch fingertips, but such a display would only cause them trouble. You could not avoid the office gossips. The girl wished they had a secret place to go where she could simply lean into his chest as she loved to do and place her ear to his heart, his strong arms wrapped around her.

‘I’m sure the letter must have reached him by now,’ Adita said. ‘But he still hasn’t called. I am afraid of what it means. It’s not like him to go silent.’

‘Perhaps he is considering giving us his blessing.’

‘Ravi, the probability of that happening is nearly zero. You don’t know my father. I am sure he will disown me. He will forbid me to come home ever again. I will lose my family.’ Adita bowed her head, held back more tears. ‘I should never have written. I wish I had gone home and told him in person. It would be so much easier if Ma was still alive.’

‘My family will protect you now,’ Ravi said.

Adita looked up at him abruptly. ‘I want the blessing of my family too, Ravi.’ And she turned her face away.

Hari Bhaiyya watched the young couple from behind the counter. He did not need to hear their words to understand. She had told her father, and the news was not good.

 

‘Calcutta leaf,’ Vikram said to the paan wallah, who sat smoking in his phone booth-sized stall. ‘Number 120 tobacco, wet betel nut seed. The best keemam, one cardamom. Got it?’ The paan wallah nodded confidently, taking up the leaf and alternately smearing, adding, sprinkling the ingredients. He got to the cardamom, reached at another of his brass pots.

‘No chutney!’ Vikram nearly screamed. ‘No chutney!’ The vendor, startled by the outburst, quickly folded the leaf into its little packet shape, and passed it over to Vikram, who stuffed it into his left cheek and handed the man six rupees.

‘Six rupees more for the keemam—it’s Navratan,’ the paan wallah said.

‘Too much!’ Vikram said. ‘You can’t just say any price you want.’

The vendor sized up his customer. Guy was wearing brand new expensive jeans and shoes, a nice shirt. He looked a bit tense, maybe he wasn’t a rich guy, maybe he was going on a job interview. Yes, that had to be it, he was super-stressed. Maybe he’s in the same position that I am, the paan wallah thought. He may have three kids at home with his mother, and still be sending something back to his village every month, just like me. He’s trying to get a better job, increase his income. This guy needs a break, the wallah thought. He needs a small blessing.

‘Just give me ten rupees,’ the paan wallah said.

Vikram looked him in the eye. He studied the man in the wood box, working by the light of a single glaring bulb, his pots arranged in front of him, a rack of crisps and shiny silver packets hanging behind him, Ganesha on the wall, what could this guy be making? No more than a few hundred rupees a month, nothing. Why did he even do it? ‘OK, loser,’ Vikram thought, ‘if you want to give away your money that’s fine with me.’ ‘Better,’ he said to the wallah, handing over a ₹2 coin.

 

The twitching little man who had approached de Vries on the way in stood in the shadows off to the left. He had been handcuffed to a metal grate which covered the window of an old building. He faced the wall, his arms elevated just to the point of discomfort and twisted around. He blinked his eyes repeatedly and was hyperventilating.

The police officer still blocked his passage. Impeccably barbered, freshly pressed uniform. Name badge reading SINGH pinned to the left breast pocket of his starched khaki shirt. Nice boots, shined to mirror finish. And a very beautiful silver-tipped stick. He wore a revolver in a reddish-brown leather holster at his hip, snapped shut. He was smiling.

‘Sir will kindly answer a few questions,’ the policeman said matter-of-factly, not moving out of the way. He nodded in the direction of Lateef and continued, ‘This gentleman here has made serious accusations against you.’ Lateef began to babble in Hindi about not knowing anything at all. ‘Shut up,’ the policeman said, and Lateef went silent. ‘I will need to examine your visa.’

‘My visa?’ De Vries knew he was not carrying his passport. ‘What accusations?’

Subinspector Singh stared angrily at Lateef. ‘Tell Sir what he asked you for.’

‘Drugs!’ Lateef cried. ‘Sir asked me for white powder!’

‘Now just one moment …’ de Vries attempted, but Lateef’s bellow interrupted him.

‘I am telling the truth, I swear! Look in jacket pocket! White powder is in jacket pocket!’

‘Be quiet, both of you!’ Singh barked and turned his attention to de Vries. ‘Did you ask that man for hard drugs?’

‘I don’t know what your game is,’ de Vries said. ‘But this is preposterous. The man offered me drugs and a host of other illegal things but I of course refused. He wouldn’t leave me alone and I finally had to push him out of my way.’

‘Sir is a tourist?’ Singh asked, though he knew de Vries was not one. ‘Your passport, please? I will first examine your tourist visa.’

‘Sir asked me for white powder!’ Lateef repeated, struggling with the cuffs which scraped against the metal grate just above his head. His hands were beginning to grow white and numb. He had been through this kind of performance before. He knew what was expected of him.

‘I told you to keep quiet!’ Singh struck Lateef sharply on his forehead with the stick and Lateef shut up. He would have respectable bump there tonight. ‘And, sir, you will need to cooperate. This is official police investigation.’

De Vries figured he better get Shivani or Danny Khaneja on the phone, and quick. He reached towards his lapel in the direction of his mobile phone. Subinspector Singh instantly reacted. ‘Sir will please keep his hands at his sides. In plain sight.’

‘Now you look here,’ Jan de Vries said. ‘I didn’t ask this imbecile for anything. He offered me every commodity he could think of. I’m the one being set up!’

‘So you accuse this man of soliciting?’

‘If that’s what you want to call it.’

‘If Sir will not cooperate and answer questions directly, then investigation will need to move to police thana. Do you understand?’

Lateef heard the word thana repeated and began to dance about, twisting right and left. He knew his cue, but he dreaded spending another night in the cells, which sometimes happened when he helped Subinspector Singh. He dreamed of the methamphetamine Subinspector Singh could provide later. ‘Sir has taken package of white powder from me and not paid me!’ he said.

‘This man says you stole drugs from him.’

‘Why would I do that?’ de Vries said. ‘Steal drugs from a street person? Ridiculous.’

‘I will be asking the questions,’ Singh said. ‘Did you or did you not receive drugs from this man?’

‘Of course I did not!’ de Vries said. ‘You think I’d come to a place like this for drugs?’

‘Passport please,’ Subinspector Shamsher Singh said, holding out his hand. He tapped the ground impatiently with the stick he held in his other hand. ‘I will first need to establish your identity.’

‘My passport is in my room at the Radisson Gurgaon, you fool,’ de Vries stammered. ‘I don’t walk around places like these with official documents in my pocket.’

‘Since you refuse to cooperate, we will take the investigation to police thana right away to establish your identity and file the necessary reports. I will take your statement.’ He produced a mean-looking set of handcuffs. ‘Please turn around and cross your wrists behind your back.’

De Vries looked hard at the man. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ he said. ‘I can have you arrested for this. I’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘Sir will please turn around and cross his wrists.’ Singh repeated. He blew a police whistle and a constable came running down the lane towards them. ‘Please do not resist arrest,’ he said to the Dutchman. De Vries scowled, but slowly turned around, and felt the metal bracelets bind his wrists tightly. He was ready to throw whatever sum of money was needed to get him off the hook. The constable took his arm, and turned him around again, admiring the soft touch of the Italian silk fabric of de Vries’s jacket. ‘We will now walk to the thana,’ Singh said.

‘I’ll make certain you lose your badge over this,’ de Vries growled. ‘Mark my words.’

‘Perhaps,’ the Subinspector said. ‘Or perhaps we will work out a satisfactory arrangement. This way, please.’

 

Khaneja had made himself invisible again. He had watched the whole interaction between Subinspector Singh and de Vries. Earlier he had even snapped an occasional photo of the same people from his seat outside the Jama Masjid. He had seen this kind of thing before. It never did any good to lose one’s cool with the police. Instead, one must remain flexible and cooperate and go along with the flow of events. De Vries’s natural arrogance had only made it worse for him.

Khaneja regarded these developments as advantageous for Talsera. If Jan de Vries was kept out of circulation at the police thana for the rest of the day, it gave them more time to check out what Shaitan Vikram was up to. He knew that the policeman would place de Vries in a holding room for several hours to soften him up, and would then try and cut a deal. He watched as the procession of men left the passage—the inspector in the lead, followed by a handcuffed de Vries, then Lateef, also handcuffed, and finally the constable, shoving Lateef theatrically. As soon as they disappeared down the lane Khaneja texted Jaitendra.

 

I am staying here. Client arrested. Will advise. Calling Ricky now.

 

Jaitendra received the SMS outside an internet café where it looked like Vikram had dropped in to post anonymously on some message boards. He texted Khaneja back.

 

V at internet café. May get a chance to visit his apartment while he’s busy.

 

Priyanka consulted her digital watch: 2:59:30. She inhaled deeply, prepared to knock on Ricky’s office door precisely at the scheduled moment. It had been some time since she had last met Ricky alone. She knew she was jealous of Shaalu, how successfully she kept Ricky happy. But if he ever needed her, if something ever happened to Shaalu, she would make herself available. She would reveal to him the love and admiration she held for him. She too could make him happy. She straightened the lapels on her jacket, rapped on the door three times.

‘Just a moment, Priyanka,’ Ricky said through the closed door. His mobile was ringing. Khaneja calling.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

The red-turbaned Sikh had taken the previous day off for a festival and had spent all of it at a gurdwara. He had stayed there late into the night singing. This morning he had reported late for work at Radisson Gurgaon. The desk man had told him a Dutchman had booked him for the entire day. After eating his breakfast with the other drivers at the long table in the small and windowless dining room off the kitchen, he had meticulously wiped down the exteriors of his white Ambassador and had scrutinized every corner of its interior. After that, he had reassembled the marigolds which garlanded his guru’s portrait on the dashboard, listened to a radio programme, spoke to his wife on the mobile phone and was halfway through listening to a recorded sermon on his Ipod clone when the desk called for him. His client was in a great hurry to get to Jama Masjid. Not a very polite gentleman. He had used whatever shortcuts he knew to reach the destination as quickly as possible. Then he had put the disagreeable man into a cycle-rickshaw headed for Karim’s and prepared to wait some more.

The man had said he would be no more than an hour. Plenty of time for a midday nap. So, he set his phone to vibrate, reclined the front seat of his taxi, closed his eyes and quickly fell fast asleep.

 

Dr Narayan sat at his desk in his wood-panelled office, leaned back in his red leather upholstered chair, took a sip off his midday whisky and thought about Danny Khaneja. He owed Khaneja many favours. It was never clear how he had first reached him—typical of Khaneja, he always knew the best person to call at the right time. These were the conditions under which their acquaintance had begun five years ago.

That night the phone had awakened the doctor at 2 a.m. The caller mentioned the name of a senior politician, to whom Dr Narayan was obliged. Of course the doctor immediately agreed to meet at his clinic off Connaught Place in half an hour.

Narayan, a punctilious man known for his dapper suits, stood only 5 ft 3 in tall and had the delicate hands required for reconstructive surgery. He had built his practice in Delhi catering to rich socialites and was a sought-after guest at the best dinner tables. He had sculpted noses of the famous, reduced and enlarged bosoms of the powerful, improved chins and ears of the influential and had performed liposuction on more stomachs, thighs and posteriors of the anonymous rich than he could count. He was an irrepressibly cheerful man whose patients adored him. Once a year he returned to his ancestral village in the low Himalayas, where for two weeks he donated his time pro bono to the care of the poor locals.

When Narayan saw Khaneja standing outside his clinic under the bare street lights that first night, he was amazed the man was able to walk on his own. Khaneja wore what was once a well tailored Brooks Brothers khaki suit, but it was clear he had been badly roughed up—the pockets torn, seams ripped, a clean knife cut down one sleeve, stains and smudges, a trail of blood leading from the left ear to the chest. He inventoried the man’s wounds and his mind began to work: obviously an orbital blowout fracture typical from a punch in the face. You can see the eye socket pushed inward, fracture of the zygomatic arch, needs to be reduced. Lots of ice and anti-inflammatories. Those superficial skin lacerations would need some stitches. Hands badly bruised. Clean the wounds, should be fine. Surgical reattachment of the left ear necessary as soon as possible.

‘Want to tell me what happened?’

‘Can we deal with all that after you have done your repair, doc?’ Khaneja said. He grimaced as he stepped through the doorway, half bent over.

‘Abdominal trauma?’ Narayan asked.

‘I don’t think so. I got kicked, it hurts, but everything seems to be functioning all right.’

‘You allergic to anything?’

‘Small talk,’ Khaneja said, sitting down on the examination table and grunting.

‘So what’s the story? Who did this to you?’ Narayan shined a light on his patient’s face and began to clean the wounds. Khaneja winced. The doctor gave him a quick injection. ‘For pain,’ he muttered.

‘Bar fight. A Nigerian.’

‘This may hurt, looks like you have a piece of glass in here. Ready?’

Khaneja nodded, held still. The doctor pulled a shard out of his right cheek. Khaneja took a breath as it clinked in the small dish at the doctor’s elbow. Dr Narayan produced an oxygen mask. ‘Take this and inhale,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a mild tranquillizer in the meantime. You’re in pretty bad shape, hahaha. What happened to the Nigerian?’

‘Maybe his friends dragged him out. I don’t know,’ Khaneja said. The oxygen helped. Soon he felt the immediate warmth of the anæsthetic all over his body. ‘It started over a joke about a scam.’

‘Tell me the joke.’

‘It was not funny,’

‘Obviously not, hahahaha.’ He worked on Khaneja for almost three hours. In the years that had followed, there were occasions on which he had called on Khaneja for his unique skills in other matters of business.

The doctor leaned back in his expensive chair and swivelled around to look out at the verdant courtyard outside his office. He was always glad to hear from Khaneja. Always a touch of mystery with the guy. His message mentioned he just wanted a contribution for a South Indian temple. But you never knew with Danny Khaneja. He hoped this didn’t somehow involve another Nigerian!

 

A thousand pairs of eyes followed Jan de Vries as he marched along the crowded lane in the direction of the Jama Masjid police thana. It was not the first time de Vries had been cuffed. The first time was at a soccer match when he was seventeen. He was out the next morning. At another time a scorned lover had falsely accused him of assault and two Amsterdam detectives had taken him in. His father had intervened. Once, a wild party in Bangkok had been raided. The police were quite efficient about it all and quoted a bribe straight away. He was out of those cuffs in minutes. But this was different.

Humiliated. His important business had been interrupted by some small-time cop. He glared at Singh walking in front of him. The man seemed to be known in the district. As he paraded his capture, he exchanged pleasantries with the local shopkeepers, who all seemed to fear him. This wasn’t the first time they had witnessed such a performance. Nothing remarkable, just another walk to the station, then some squeezing and finally the inevitable payment.

‘Through the doorway, please, smartly,’ Subinspector Singh said.

 

Four thousand miles away, the fat Berthe opened her eyes and tried to clear her head of the usual early-morning cobwebs, residue of last night’s alcoholic haze. It took her time to ascertain where she was—her own bedroom in her own opulent brick and slate house in the emerald countryside outside Rotterdam. On the curved cobblestone driveway in front of the house sat her perfectly restored Jaguar XJ12 sedan, parked next to Jan’s new silver blue Bentley roadster. She had a gardener tending to the lilies, tulips and crocus and a full-time maid who already had a fire going in the salon and now sat chain-smoking in the kitchen, waiting for Berthe to ring for breakfast. It would be the same breakfast as every morning: one boiled egg, a slice of cheese, some local bread, confiture and a pot of café au lait, everything delivered on a silver tray set with fine china and linen, accented by a tea rose in a tiny Delft vase. She scanned the room, her eyes crusted and stinging. Faint daylight bathed the walls, illuminating the gauze curtains that damped the diffuse sky. Something was wrong.

The fact that she had passed another night alone in bed did not trouble her. Jan was always away, and they had not had an intimate life for years now. Where was he travelling to this week? India? Yes, India. She suspected he had a mistress in Brussels, but they never spoke about that. For years she had detected suspicious scents of miscellaneous perfumes on his shirts following his business trips. On the rare occasions when he took her along, she had observed how he behaved with the stewardesses. Solicitous, jovial, flattering. Exactly the opposite of how he treated her.

She knew she was no longer the slender gamine he had married. She was now a fat, middle-aged provincial housewife, and probably a drunk. But, it wasn’t her fault. Who would not have turned into such a burnt-out case, left to waste away alone, miles from civilization, as she had been living for more than two decades? Once she had a lover, an older aristocratic gentleman, but he had died years ago. She still missed their breathless Thursday afternoon assignations. She had not had the heart to seek out another man after him, and who would be attracted to her now that she looked like this? She would see out her days with Jan, living a desolate life amidst the luxury.

Even the company of her women friends had grown tiresome. All they talked about was grandchildren, or how much they hated their husbands. Berthe did not hate Jan; he had kept his affairs away from her and from public view.

He was anyway unlike other husbands—he still paid all the bills without a word and telephoned her every morning when he was on the road, no matter in which part of the world he was. Her life revolved around those calls. How pathetic, she thought, the big event of her day a three-sentence conversation with a man she no longer cared about, and who no longer cared for her.

She remembered her engraved silver martini shaker. Today she would wait until 11 a.m. before mixing her first drink. The eerie sense that something was wrong still possessed her, but she could not tell what it was. She rang the bell for the maid. Minutes later her breakfast tray arrived.

‘Madame has slept late this morning,’ the maid attempted. ‘Madame is feeling unwell?’

Berthe looked at the clock: 9.30 a.m. She immediately knew what was wrong: Jan unfailingly called at eight every morning and today he was an hour and a half late. Probably a case of jet lag, she thought. He would eventually call. She spread confiture on her bread and dreamed of the martini shaker.

 

Overheated, a thin grimy film of sweat covering her body, Shivani stormed down the lane towards Karim’s. She was determined to confront de Vries and find out what he was up to. Instead, to her surprise, she saw Danny Khaneja walking towards her.

‘You!’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Calm down, Shiv,’ Khaneja said. ‘There’s stuff going on.’

‘What do you mean stuff? What kind of stuff? Why haven’t I been told anything?’

Shivani could intimidate almost everyone at Talsera, but not Danny Khaneja. ‘Things have been happening pretty fast,’ he said. ‘Relax. By the way, you need to call the office at once and cancel the status review for today. Put it on hold indefinitely. Say anything, lie, invent a reason, I don’t care.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Shivani nearly screamed. ‘Where’s Jan de Vries? He’s supposed to be in Karim’s.’

‘He was,’ Khaneja said. ‘Not there any longer.’

‘So where’s he now?’

‘At the Jama Masjid police thana.’

‘My God, I need to get over there right away. What else do you know?’

‘You better stay away, Shiv. And by the way, there’s more. Shaitan Vikram is back to haunt us. He seems to be the one behind those nasty blog posts.’

Shivani stared at him, said nothing.

‘And it appears he’s been conspiring with Jan de Vries.’

‘Godammit, I’m going over to the police station right now,’ Shivani said. ‘I’ll get to the bottom of this.’

‘You will not. You’re going to call the office and cancel the meeting and then you will go back and wait for my call.’

He’s not telling me the whole thing, Shivani thought. ‘I suppose your friend Jaitendra is involved?’

‘No comment,’ Khaneja said. ‘At the moment I am keeping an eye on Mr de Vries. Your presence is not needed. In fact, you will only get in the way.’

‘What’s he doing in the thana?’ she said.

‘He’s in custody,’ Khaneja said. ‘Led away in handcuffs. I figure they’re booking him now. I’ll give them a couple hours to do the paperwork, then get personally involved. Just go, Shiv. Nothing’s gonna happen for a long time. Go back to Gurgaon and wait for my call.’

‘You listen to me,’ she said, arms akimbo, steaming in the afternoon sun. ‘You screw this up, then I will get even. I will make you and your dashing war hero friend sorry you ever got involved. Is that clear enough? Do I need to make it any clearer?’

 

Continued on next page

 

 

 

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