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The Hacker

LIVING Mr Raj nears Talsera, and Shaitan Vikram returns to his apartment, as Jaitendra waits. We continue our serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker

 

 

 

Previous page: Chapters 13–16

Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

After she left Ricky, Shivani sat in her own office twiddling her thumbs for five minutes until she got fed up. What the hell difference did it make if she was here or there? In her search for Jan de Vries she’d been out to Old Delhi sweating like a pig all afternoon, and now Danny Khaneja had her standing by waiting for nothing. So she left Building 3, found her driver and had him take her home, which wasn’t far away. She took a long shower and tried not to think about what she was going to say to de Vries the next time they met. This whole RoodInfo account was flying out of control. Besides, the return of Vikram had introduced particularly unsavoury complications.

The idea of Jaitendra skulking around offended her. He had a sinister past and was a dangerous, circumspect and unpredictable commodity. He also had the ear of Ricky Talsera. Shivani didn’t trust him and knew she had better keep an eye on him as well. She towelled off, admiring her naked body in the full-length mirror of her dressing room. She had become more comfortable sunbathing on the beaches of Deauville than on the sands of Goa, and she wondered whether to take another holiday at that sweet little hotel she had stayed at in Cap d’Antibes. It had a view of the promenade and the yacht harbour, and a little café downstairs which she liked and where she could sit at a table all afternoon in the shade of an old tree and drink pastis as men walked by and made eyes at her. Europeans were so much more direct. What about Jan de Vries? As long as he was not sabotaging her project, she might take up with him as he had so frequently suggested. He wanted them to meet in the Seychelles, do some snorkelling, stay at a five-star resort. She might give him a chance. Shivani chose some lacy black underwear and opened her closet looking for something cute and sexy. Then her mobile buzzed, a new SMS.

 

RoodInfo mtg 8pm be on time pls, Einstein. Ricky

 

‘OK,’ Shivani thought, ‘time to rethink my outfit.’

 

‘Nalini darling!’

‘Shaalu! I was going to call you!’

‘Have you got five minutes? There’s some stuff I need to ask you.’

‘Yes, sure. I have something to ask you too.’

‘Do you have any idea why Ricky just left me a message to say he will work late tonight?’ Shaalu asked.

‘I can guess,’ Nalini Abraham said. ‘That RoodInfo client. It’s got the whole office on edge. Has he told you much about it?’

‘What he hasn’t told me I’ve seen on the internet. Somebody’s been trashing Talsera anonymously on some blog.’

‘I saw that too. It’s Shivani’s job, right?’

‘Yes, unfortunately. I don’t know why they keep her around,’ Shaalu said.

‘She was in at the beginning, one of the first hires. You know how loyal those guys are.’

‘But how many jobs has she brought in lately?’

‘And what does she do to get them?’ Both women giggled.

‘She’s certainly rich enough. You know she inherited quite a fortune from her parents. She doesn’t need the job.’

‘I don’t think she would be missed,’ Nalini said. ‘I wouldn’t miss her. Rajan wouldn’t. He hides in his office when he hears she’s around. You know Hari Bhaiyya has a standing order to keep Rajan posted on her whereabouts so he can avoid her.’

‘Today she may have gone too far,’ Shaalu said.

‘What? She had sex with one of the peons? That was mean of me. I didn’t say that.’

‘Not as bad. Ricky told me she terminated somebody on her own today.’

‘Sounds like Shivani. Takes matters into her own hands.’

‘We can only hope for the worst.’

‘What else did you want to ask me?’

‘Jodhpur Tool and Die. I bought it at thirty-eight. It hit seventy-one yesterday. Sell?’ Shaalu asked.

‘Not yet,’ Nalini said. ‘Wait for one hundred. It’ll get there. Be patient.’

‘What was it you wanted to ask me?’

‘Did you get the invitation for Harpreet’s wedding?’

‘Oh my God, I did. All those red and gold sparkles. Really really glittery.’

‘You saw his parents left her last name off it?’

‘I saw that. I guess they want to pretend she’s not Hindu. Are you guys going?’

‘I don’t think so. We’ll send a nice gift.’

‘We were thinking the same thing. But somebody from top management should go,’ Shaalu said.

‘What about the Khanejas?’

‘I’ll ask them. They get along with everybody.’

‘What a shame we can’t make Shivani go.’

‘Yes, and tell her she has to wear a sari.’

‘She’d probably pick one up at Chanel.’

‘Oh, by the way, I must show you this new ring Rajan bought for me—Brazilian brown diamonds in a titanium band. It’s exquisite.’

‘Promise me you’ll wear it when we see you for Diwali.’

‘Sure. Oh! I hear the kids. Have to run! Let me call you later. Byeee!’

 

Raj Kumarji was puzzled when the rickshaw driver dropped him on the street he had asked for. There were three buildings with the name ‘Talsera’ on them. A patient man by nature, he walked to the same chaiwala where Ricky and Jaitendra liked to go, sat down on a red plastic stool and sent his nephew to get two cups of masala chai. As he waited he observed. It soon became clear that many young people were filing out of Building 3, which also had the business name in large, mirrored letters, running in a vertical strip along the modern façade. He had not expected the company to have three buildings in the same sector. He did not know that Talsera had offices in four European cities and four in America as well.

He noticed that Building 3 had a guardhouse at the entrance. After he had finished his cup of chai he snapped his fingers, handed his nephew a piece of paper and said, ‘Dial the number written here and give the phone to me when it is ringing. Then go over there and talk to the guard and see if you can find out where the office of the owner of this company is located.’

As Raj Kumarji proceeded with his call, speaking secretively into the phone, his nephew Mahesh meandered over to the guard house, where he tried to start up a conversation with Security Guard no. 8, Raheem. ‘Well?’ asked Raj Kumarji, when the young man returned.

‘He told me to go away,’ said the nephew. Raj Kumarji nodded, his low expectation of the youth’s potential unaltered. ‘He told me to stop asking questions; threatened he would call the police.’

Raj Kumarji handed back the mobile phone. ‘Now we wait,’ he said. ‘Watch for my signal. If we encounter any resistance, any at all, be prepared to grab Adita and let nobody else get near her. She will leave this place with us, and only us.’

Mahesh nodded; he knew enough not to ask for more information. He could read the tense twitches at the corners of the old man’s mouth. If he knew one thing about his uncle, it was that those twitches meant trouble was on its way.

Some time later an official-looking white Ambassador, with two uniformed constables in front, pulled up across from Building 3. A ghostly silhouette could be seen through the sheer curtains that covered the rear windows of the vehicle.

The occupant of the back seat was ASI Ramesh Pathenia, who had earlier been warned by the Brigadier that a call from Raj Kumarji might be forthcoming. The call had come while Pathenia was engaged in a challenging, athletic tantric position with his girlfriend, as part of the regular afternoon liaison he believed his wife was unaware of, which was not the case. Much to his girlfriend’s disappointment, the ASI had leapt out of bed and had taken the call. Pathenia owed the Brigadier big time, a debt resulting from a particularly sticky incident involving hijacked Chinese truck parts. The Brigadier had made the whole mess go away—no arrest, no trial, no jail, no black spot on his record. Henceforth, if the Brigadier called, ASI Pathenia was his man.

He had brought along two young and ambitious constables, who followed orders and did not ask questions. On the phone, it had sounded like a simple enough situation: an old dude from Rajasthan needed to take his daughter back home. She had fallen victim to a fast-living city boy. Pathenia suspected that the girl was probably on drugs all the time, went to nightclubs, had casual sex, wore short skirts.

ASI Pathenia remained inside the car, and occupied himself with texting his girlfriend. The constables got out and looked around, up and down the street, across to the chaiwallah, and the senior of the two nodded at Raj Kumarji. Motioning to his nephew to follow, Raj Kumarji walked in a proud manner—back straight, eyes fixed forward, almost a military march—across the muddy road, through the concrete gateway, up to the window of the small blockhouse where Security Guard no. 8 Raheem sat. The police constables followed him, but held back at a respectful distance.

‘I demand to see the owner of this company,’ Raj Kumarji said. ‘Now. And if you do not tell him I am here I will have those cops order you to do so.’

Security Guard no. 13 Vartan, who stood outside the blockhouse, exchanged curious glances with his colleague. This looked complicated.

‘Hurry up!’ Raj Kumarji said. ‘I do not have all day. Shake a leg.‘ A group of laughing employees filed by him, their daily work ended, but they went silent as they looked curiously at the visitors, sensed the tension in the air, hurried away, did not look back. Raj Kumarji stood at attention, waiting. He eyed both the security guards, who had no desire to defy the old fellow in the turban and grey jacket who had an undeniable air of authority about him. The young man in the Megadeth T-shirt who hovered behind him and the two constables loitering over by the gate added a note of menace to the situation.

‘Please wait,’ Security Guard no. 8 Raheem said as he dialled Hari Bhaiyya’s number. Soon the problem would become Hari’s.

 

Shaitan Vikram shifted the bag of bananas from his right to his left arm and fumbled with his keys. He had some trouble getting the top lock open but finally it clicked. Then one-handedly he found the key for the bottom lock and worked on it, juggling his bananas. This one always stuck and it took a special twist at the end, just the right amount of pressure, to open it. He looked left and right down the passage and wondered if that whore of a stewardess next door was around. Sometimes she had a red uniform and other times a yellow one. Sometimes he would see her going in, sometimes going out. Once he had even stared at her, but she wouldn’t look at him. He knew what she thought: that he was a stupid, poor, low-caste provincial boy with a shit job and no future. Nobody she wanted to be seen with. Just because she flew on jet planes she thought she was better than him. He wondered if he could find a way to hide a mini-cam in her bathroom while she was away, watch her strip and take her shower whenever he wanted. That would be killer. He’d already photographed her several times leaving the building, even followed her to the taxi stand once. He knew she was teasing him, because she always walked past the dhaba where he went. One day he was going to travel on an aeroplane first-class and she was going to serve him, and maybe he would even be able to talk her into meeting him in the bathroom and they would join the Mile High Club together like he had read online. The website had said stewardesses did that all the time. He would think about that later. He turned the handle and slowly pushed the door open.

 

Hari Bhaiyya scurried up to the small front-facing conference room on the third floor, where the three goddesses were still seated at the table, finishing their meeting, and said, ‘Adita madam must come with me at once. You must not take your taxi. Quickly, the back stairs to the roof.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Adita said, but she sensed an unmistakable urgency in Hari Bhaiyya’s request. It was clear to all three that she needed to heed his words and they began to pack up their possessions quickly.

‘I’m not leaving you alone,’ said Harpreet. ‘Whatever is happening we stick together. Hari, tell us what’s going on.’

‘Yes, whatever it is, I’m coming with you too,’ Shoba said.

‘Ladies will come with me first,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘Then I will tell.’

Hari Bhaiyya led them through the deserted office cubicles, up the back stairs, past the small area where he slept and cooked and to the roof. They now stood in the ochre dusk, overlooking the southwest corner of Electronic City. Across a trash-covered ditch, beyond a row of trees, they could see a cluster of gigantic satellite dishes, and buildings old and new, and construction sites and cranes and towers. A light breeze was blowing, and the three young women moved to a bench that sat along a wall and waited for Hari Bhaiyya’s explanation.

‘Adita madam’s father is here,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘With a tough young man who stands behind him like a gangster. He has probably sworn out some complaint with the police. Two constables are with him, and also an ASI who has a gun. Your father wants to meet Ricky sir. I have them in the basement canteen. I did not want you walking out to the taxi, what with the possibility of him seeing you. You understand?’

Adita clasped Shoba’s arm, who sat to her right. ‘My goodness, Hari Bhaiyya,’ she said. ‘Of course you did the right thing. Does Ravi know?’

‘Nobody knows yet,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘Except for the few people who saw them walk to the canteen, and the security guards. I left two of our guards with them. Now I need to tell Ricky sir. Do you want me to get Ravi?’

‘Let me SMS him,’ Adita said. ‘I’ll have him meet me up here. My father wouldn’t recognize him if he walked by. Ravi and I need to talk this over. You can go and tell Ricky Sir where we are. Also, be careful: the young man with my father has to be my cousin, and he has a history of violence. Don’t let the security guards push him, bhaiyya. He can be dangerous.’

‘One has that impression,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘I am worried about the police, too. That ASI has a mean expression on his face.’

‘Father must have called his Brigadier friend back home who knows many people in Delhi. He seems to have gotten the local authorities involved. Now, what am I going to do?’

‘Don’t worry, let me speak to Ricky sir. He will know what action to take,’ Hari reassured Adita. ‘Luckily the workday is over, the building is empty. Imagine the scandal if it had been noon.’ With this, Hari Bhaiyya headed back down the stairs. As he passed the second floor his mobile phone rang again.

‘Security Guard no. 8 Raheem, Hari-sir. Can you please come down to the entrance again? We have more uninvited visitors.’

‘Who is it? Do you know?’

‘It is Nitin sir and his father. But Nitin sir resigned today and no longer has his identity card. His father wishes a meeting with Ricky Talsera sir.’

‘Hold them there for me,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘And sign them in as guests.’

Hari Bhaiyya walked down the muddy lane to Building 1 as fast as he could without running. He waved to the security guards who all knew him very well, went through the foyer, made a hard left, quickly climbed the stairs and made another hard left turn. He took a deep breath and knocked at the unmarked door which led to Ricky Talsera’s office. Seconds later Ricky himself opened the door.

‘Hari?’ he said, surprised. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure? Come in. Why are you out of breath?’

‘Two visitors have arrived,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘No appointments! I came over immediately. Both of them you need to meet. I am sorry, they gave no warning. Both of them are important and only you can talk to them!’ Ricky Talsera regarded him curiously. ‘They are two parents. Come to talk about their children.’

‘Whose parents?’

‘Adita’s. You know her story, right? She loves Ravi, but her father, Raj Kumarji, has selected another boy for her. He’s come all the way from Rajasthan to take his daughter home. He is here with his tough nephew, an ASI and two police constables. I have two of our guards with them down in the canteen. Served them tea. About Adita’s father, you have to remember that in his village he is an important man. He is accustomed to respect. You had better see him first. In fact you should go there immediately and welcome him. He is not used to waiting. His nephew is clearly a bit of a thug and those policemen are acting impatient.’

‘Where is Adita?’

‘She is hidden on the roof of Building 3 with her friends Shoba and Harpreet. They are calling Ravi up there too. You should really drop everything and get over to meet her father right now. There’s not much time before your other guests arrive for the client meeting.’

‘You said two parents, Hari. The mother is here, too?’

‘No! The other parent is the father of Nitin. Shivani madam made him resign today. I think his father has come to ask for the boy’s job back.’

‘I’m not running a software company,’ Ricky Talsera said. ‘I’m running a goddamn counselling centre. This couldn’t have happened on a worse day. What do you recommend I do, Hari?’

‘Meet them. Listen to them,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘You don’t have a lot of time. But you need to listen. Adita’s father has come the farthest and waited the longest. See him first.’

‘Where did you put Nitin’s father?’

‘Not just the father. Nitin and his father. Them I have placed in a small conference room on the second floor.’

‘Two personnel problems and a client emergency,’ Ricky said. ‘Just another typical day at work. Illicit office romance, more nonsense from the Destroyer and a huge job about to blow up in my face. I’m going to need a week of vacation after all this, Hari. OK, I’m ready. Let the fireworks begin.’

 

 

Chapter 18

 

Bananas cradled in one arm, keys in his opposite hand, Shaitan Vikram kicked the apartment door with his toe and it swung open with a low creak. Even before his beady eyes could completely adjust to the dim, he very clearly identified Jaitendra, seated in the swivel chair, waiting for him. ‘Oh shit,’ Vikram said flatly, turning towards the entryway, about to make a run for it.

Jaitendra had prepared himself for this. He leapt out of the chair in a flash and tackled Vikram before he could get to the door. Quite a struggle ensued, Vikram trying to wriggle away as Jaitendra worked to subdue him, no blood drawn. ‘The kid is adrenalin-charged,’ Jaitendra thought as he rolled over on to his side and Vikram quickly scrambled to his feet. But a figure appeared in the doorway, Neha, with some papers held in her left hand and a small, two-tone plastic device about the size of an electric shaver in her right. She put her arm out and casually zapped Vikram on the upper shoulder. Instantly Vikram froze in pain, shook like a break dancer and then dropped to the floor, dazed. Jaitendra got up, dragged him to the centre of the room and shut the door.

‘Thanks for that. Give me a minute to restrain him,’ he said simply, grabbing for a roll of black plastic electrical tape. ‘May put up a fight when he comes to.’

‘Figured there would be trouble,’ she said. Neha pocketed her personal TaserLady Model 2010, strolled over to the HP printer and grabbed the printout of the supine Nordic woman which rested in the paper tray, studying it only briefly. She looked around the dark lair and its shabby disarray and said, ‘Nice. First class.’

Jaitendra bound Vikram’s wrists and easily lifted him into one of the folding chairs. He had just finished taping his ankles when Vikram started to come around. Neha walked to the chair and stood over Vikram, a perturbed expression on her face.

‘You had no right to do that,’ he whimpered. ‘I’m in pain, I might have brain damage.’

Neha hurled the papers at him, and they fell around him on the floor in a random arc. Porn images of white women with big boobs. ‘I’ve been saving up all your mail, waiting to return it to you, you creep. Slipping this crap under my door every day. You thought I wouldn’t come to know it was you. Something wrong with Indian girls? We’re not beautiful enough for you?’

‘Brain damage,’ Vikram repeated. ‘Need a doctor.’

‘Grow up, Vikram,’ Neha said. ‘That was the lowest setting. You’re not gonna die this time.’

‘What do you guys want? What are you doing here?’

‘Look who is talking,’ Jaitendra said.

‘I don’t understand any of this,’ Vikram said.

‘Mind if I have a banana?’ Neha asked. She picked one off the bunch which lay on the floor and started to peel it. ‘You want one?’ Jaitendra shook his head.

‘Maybe I should just let her have a go at you first,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Unless you are ready to explain your plan for Talsera.’

‘Plan?’ Vikram said. ‘What plan?’

‘Let me zap him again,’ Neha said. ‘That’ll make him talk.’

‘Wait! I have information that Talsera will find useful! I have collected much data, I can give you the competitive edge, as Conrad Epstein calls it!’ Vikram said. ‘I have loads of insider information.’

‘I like how he suddenly turns lucid,’ Neha said.

Vikram stared at Jaitendra, who had swung back to the computer screens. He was systematically starting to reformat drives. ‘I have money,’ Vikram said to his back. ‘US dollars. A lot of money.’

Jaitendra swivelled around, reached into his coat pocket, held up the packet he had found taped under the keyboard. ‘You mean this money?’ Vikram’s tiny eyes opened wide.

‘We could be partners,’ he gasped. ‘Start a company, blow everybody away. I know how. But don’t do that to my machines!’

‘I am reformatting their drives,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You won’t be needing this shit.’

‘Wait! Not that stuff! That is important work. My work! I own it. You are violating my copyright, my intellectual property!’

Jaitendra continued wiping the hard drives clean. The poetical music of keystrokes filled the space. On the three screens, windows rose and fell. Little boxes appeared asking whether he was sure he really wanted to continue. Yes, he did. Whole universes of data were rendered into nothing, died forever. Jaitendra admired the beauty, the perfection of software. It was like composing music or playing an instrument, like drawing a line or carving in stone. There was a world of unknowable order, a spiritual, mystical dimension to it he could barely describe. ‘Vikram,’ he asked, halting his interaction with the screens, ‘did you ever think about using your brain to help other people?’

‘Who ever did anything for me?’ Vikram said.

‘My heart bleeds for this guy,’ Neha said. ‘I wouldn’t advise you to go into business with him.’

Jaitendra found his way into Talsera’s intranet which was already open on the right-hand screen, called up Vikram’s HR files, started reading the postings. Neha walked over, stood behind him, put her hand gently on his shoulder. Nobody spoke. In the tiny two-inch square window tucked on the middle screen near the top, the obese Romanian woman, unobserved by anyone, continued to repeat her jiggling dance in an endless, choppy film loop.

 

When Danny was escorted into Subinspector Singh’s office, his host simply motioned to the chair facing the desk. Khaneja didn’t say anything either; he plopped down, took out his phone and dialled a number. ‘Mr Hooda?’ he said. ‘Dilbar Khaneja here … I’m at the Jama Masjid police thana and ready for my guest. May I ask you to call Subinspectorji? … Thank you, sir.’

Within moments the policeman’s mobile buzzed. He picked it up slowly. ‘Sir,’ he said warily. Listened for five seconds. ‘Yes, sir, thank you sir.’ He hit the red button, looked at Khaneja, put de Vries’s shoes, jacket and belt and the envelope of his possessions on the desk top. Khaneja opened the envelope and examined the objects which spilled out.

‘I would like to see the police report,’ he said.

Subinspector Singh passed over a white paper.

‘Both copies,’ Khaneja said. Subinspector Singh handed over the yellow original. Khaneja took his time reading it. He inventoried everything on the desk. He remembered the film he had luckily got of Lateef planting drugs in de Vries’s pocket. He remembered the snapshot of Lateef meeting with Subinspector Singh before de Vries’s arrest. He would only bring them out if necessary. ‘So, let’s deal with this alleged drug charge,’ he said. ‘I see "suspicion of possession of dangerous substances" but there’s no evidence bag.’

‘This must be an error,’ Subinspector Singh said. ‘You know how it is, how overburdened the staff gets. Probably somebody writing down lines intended for another report, switched papers in his confusion. There will be no drugs charge.’

‘Excellent,’ Khaneja said. ‘So as far as we know, no crime was committed by my client.’

‘Absolutely not,’ Subinspector Singh said. ‘To our good knowledge, no crime was committed. An unfortunate misunderstanding.’

‘I also see listed on the inventory a "folded paper of handwritten notes". I will need to see it.’

‘There is no such paper among the effects?’ Singh asked incredulously. ‘That cannot be!’

‘Perhaps it dropped to the floor accidentally?’ Khaneja suggested. ‘You might want to check around your desk just in case.’ Singh began to look around at stacks of documents on his desktop, apparently unsuccessfully. He studied Khaneja’s face, which remained impassive. ‘Mr Hooda would certainly be grateful if this piece of evidence could be recovered,’ Khaneja said as he held up his camera screen and showed Subinspector Singh the photograph of Vikram passing the note to de Vries. ‘Mr Hooda knows our client received such a paper just before his arrest.’

At this, Subinspector Singh reached under his blotter, produced the folded note and slid it across the desk. ‘Obviously an innocent oversight on someone’s part,’ he offered as Khaneja studied it, nodded and put it away.

‘It does occur to me that as no crime was committed, these are unnecessary,’ Khaneja said, ripping the police report pages in half, then in quarters, then eighths, and then pocketing the pieces. He took out his wallet, and counted out ₹10,000 in ten large notes. ‘But it is also clear that some of the state’s resources were inadvertently used. Restitution is customary, so I hope this will in some way compensate.’ The notes disappeared from the desktop. ‘And that this whole incident will be soon forgotten.’

‘Of course. And I trust you will tell Mr Hooda you had the full cooperation of this unit,’ Singh said. ‘If I can be of any further help …’

‘Yes, can you send for the foreigner de Vries immediately? Let me take him off your hands, out of your responsibility.’

 

After finishing his second cup of tea, which was nowhere as good as the tea served in his village, Raj Kumarji began to feel the symptoms of impatience. However he knew he had best keep his opinions in check, at least for the moment. He stared across the table at his nephew Mahesh, who seemed transfixed by the windowed chamber across the canteen, the one with the sign ‘Xbox Room’, where three large screens were mounted on the wall facing a row of easy chairs. Nobody occupied the room, though the screens displayed scorecards and realistic animations of auto chases through modern city streets. Though Raj Kumarji did not know what precisely an Xbox was, he assumed it had something to do with wasting time. The two police constables stared at the room equally mesmerized. Off to the side, the ASI was muttering into his mobile phone, his eyes darting around the room suspiciously as he spoke.

Raj Kumarji now looked impatiently at the staircase where Hari Bhaiyya had disappeared after serving them. He had asked to see the owner, and he would soon settle with him this matter of Adita’s corruption by the big city, and the irresponsible conduct of Talsera. He had been assured when she was hired that the girls were always strictly chaperoned, but he now knew that the contrary was true: it was no different in this place; susceptible young women were as apt to be victimized by fortune hunters here as anywhere else.

Finally Hari Bhaiyya reappeared, but accompanied by a younger man in casual clothing, wearing sports shoes. Beware! Raj Kumarji thought, of smiling men approaching you with namaste. This was probably some lesser security chief or administrator or small manager or someone’s nephew, whereas he had specifically asked for the owner.

 

Jaitendra read Vikram’s HR file with a detached interest. He wished he’d had the time to do it before the shit hit the fan, because it explained a lot. It also suggested a way to deal with Vikram now that he had been unmasked: parents deceased, four sisters all married. Everyone raised in the home of his uncle, who has kids of his own. College scores excellent. Hired straight out of school. The drinking incident at the party. His mentor asks to be reassigned. Lots of conflict with Shivani, that figures. The famous San Francisco trip, which nobody seemed to recognize for its ambition, let alone its sheer audacity.

‘Nobody may have done much for you in the past. But I’d say a lot of people put trust in you at Talsera from the first day,’ Jaitendra said. ‘We try and and make everyone feel at home. You owe some people apologies.’

‘Good luck,’ Neha said from behind his shoulder. ‘You think he understands the principle?’

‘What are you guys talking about?’ Vikram said.

‘I rest my case,’ Neha said.

‘You could be right,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Maybe it’s easier for Vikram to just disappear.’

‘You wouldn’t do that,’ Vikram said.

‘Seems like less handling to me. You see all events have consequences, something which you seem to ignore. This would be a major karmic lesson for you.’

‘I can’t listen to any more of this,’ Neha said. ‘I have stuff to take care of. But before I go, you,’ she said, pointing at Vikram, ‘are a lout. I don’t give a shit what happens to you. You stay away from me and here’s a free piece of advice: do whatever he says.’ With this, she kissed Jaitendra’s cheek, and left them alone in the flat.

‘That girl likes you,’ Vikram said, squirming uncomfortably against the flimsy folding chair to which he had been so expertly fastened.

‘You can delete that from your memory,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Let’s start talking real business now. You understand a lot of people are mad at you, more than you obviously recognize? Not only people at Talsera, but also that Dutch man. I bet he’s a tough one.’

‘No,’ Vikram said. ‘I can handle him. Let me handle him.’

‘You’ve offended Ajit Hooda.’

‘Who is he?’

‘Ajit Hooda runs Old Delhi, Jama Masjid. He’s aware of everything that goes on there. After you left Karim’s the Dutch man got arrested.’

‘But I wasn’t responsible …’

‘You were certainly involved, and it caused Mr Hooda some discomfort. It’s a simple choice, Vikram. Either you do the right thing now, or you don’t. I’m your new best friend. You have about an hour—there’s not a moment to be lost—so we’d better get started.’

‘I have to use the toilet,’ Vikram said.

 

URGENT BLOGPOST FROM KNIGHTTURING
To all my faithful readers. This will be my final post to you. I owe everybody a big apology. I was completely wrong about that company I called Areslat. It is a super company, and one people should do business with. I was being given incorrect information which I irresponsibly passed along. I have now deleted all my prior posts. I deeply regret any inconvenience caused. Please forgive me. Goodbye.

 

‘I like the way that reads,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Contrite, to the point, self-effacing, ha ha!’

‘I still need to use the toilet,’ Vikram said.

‘What do you say we also shut down these windows with the dancing woman and this Korean lady and this alleged fifteen-year-old from Sao Paolo? She looks a bit older than fifteen to me.’

‘Please, sir, save the woman from Brazil. I really like her. We have been having chatting dates.’

Jaitendra frowned. ‘Goodbye Romania,’ he said, and the window disappeared. ‘Adios, Korea,’ he said, clicked the X, and the IM box evaporated. ‘Let’s hang on to South America for another few minutes and say bye-bye to all the gambling and games first. I moved all the porn to the trash. Next step: the Talsera intranet. I’m going to work on this for a few minutes by myself—turn off your access to the surveillance cameras, lock you out, close a few holes. So, sit back and relax.’

‘But leave the Brazilian girl, sir, please,’ Vikram said. ‘And the toilet, sir, please, this is an emergency, Jaitendra sir!’

 

 

Chapter 19

 

Jan de Vries, his arrogance undiminished, was brought down from the holding room on Subinspector Singh’s orders. ‘You took your sweet time,’ he said to Khaneja, as he entered the room. ‘I intend to press charges and report this so-called policeman. He is a menace to society.’

‘Take a look at your valuables first, and make sure everything is there. The Subinspector has graciously offered you use of his private bathroom if you want to clean up a bit, reassemble yourself before we get you back to Gurgaon.’

‘I am going to make more trouble for you than you can imagine,’ de Vries said, turning to face Subinspector Singh.

Mijnheer, Ik raad u aan om meteen uw bek te houden,’ Khaneja said. ‘The Subinspector explains that you inadvertently wandered into a police operation in progress, and events flew out of control. He has agreed to withdraw all charges and release you immediately. No report will be filed.’

‘You are free to go, with our apologies,’ Subinspector Singh said, wobbling his head. ‘You should never have strayed into Old Delhi by yourself, sir. Next time you will know to take someone with you.’

‘There was this matter of a small administrative charge, but that too has been taken care of,’ Khaneja added.

‘Yes, you are free to go,’ Subinspector Singh repeated. ‘Do you understand? Now you may leave.’

‘And what about that lowlife who offered me drugs? Shouldn’t something happen to him?’

‘He was an informant involved in a sting and who got overexcited,’ the Subinspector said. ‘He will be dealt with.’

‘Where’s this private bathroom?’ de Vries asked in exasperation, grabbing at his possessions, even as he held his designer jeans up at the waist. Singh pointed to an unmarked door. It was surprisingly clean, modern, white-tiled, with a chair and open counter space. A fresh bar of jade green Medimix soap sat perfectly squared to the corner of the basin. He searched furtively for the folded paper Vikram had handed him in Karim’s, but it was nowhere to be found. He powered up his Vertu phone—35 messages, most of them from Shivani. He wondered where she was and how much she knew. Her last message read:

 

DON’T SAY ANYTHING

 

He turned on the water and washed his face for the first time in hours.

Meanwhile, Khaneja said to Subinspector Singh, ‘You will find a small gesture of respect for Ajit Hooda, some useful technology. Wait about two hours, and send half a dozen men to Dwarka Sector 6, DDA flats. Block C, number 512A. It’s a fifth-floor corner flat. The door will be open. Take whatever you want from the place.’

Moments later Jan de Vries reappeared, somewhat put-together. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘Are we leaving or aren’t we?’ He opened the door to freedom and looked back. ‘You go first,’ he said to Khaneja.

Khaneja led the entire way back to the Jama Masjid parking area. De Vries attempted to speak once, but Danny shook his head. ‘First we get you out of this place and then we talk.’

When they got to Khaneja’s car de Vries stopped again. ‘I had a driver here this afternoon.’

‘He’s gone back,’ Khaneja said. ‘I took care of that already. He doesn’t know anything.’

‘How’d you figure out where I was?’

‘Mr de Vries, I am playing on my home field. Do you have any idea how much trouble you were in? There were a lot of big ifs at play there. If you hadn’t gone to meet that guy, if I hadn’t been looking for you, if I didn’t have a contact to a local politician, if I didn’t know how these things work … I mean you are so out of your league.’

Minutes passed, stony silence. Khaneja piloted his car over to Connaught Place, turned in the direction of Dhaula Kuan, then got on the expressway to the airport, drove through the tag lane at the toll.

‘You didn’t see a folded paper among my effects, did you?’ de Vries asked out of the blue. ‘Some handwritten note, jottings, nothing of consequence.’ Khaneja didn’t reply, drove on another few miles, wasn’t watching his speed. It was 90 km/h. Just before Mahipalpur a cop hiding behind some bushes stepped out holding his speed gun, and flagged Khaneja down, into a line of ten cars waiting along the shoulder of the road.

‘I can’t believe I am going to be challaned now,’ Khaneja said. ‘Perfect timing.’ He stopped the car and turned off the engine and put his hands on the wheel, dropped his head forward.

‘What’s happening?’ de Vries said. ‘Why are we in this queue?’

‘Karma,’ Khaneja said, twisting in the seat. ‘Yours or mine, I don’t know which. But since we’re going to be here a while, let’s get a few things straight. First look at this picture, you and Vikram meeting at Karim’s. Are you aware this is an ex-Talsera employee operating illegally in direct violation of a non-solicitation letter?’ He held up his phone so de Vries could see the screen. ‘And here’s a photo of him passing you a sheet of paper.’

‘This is outrageous,’ de Vries said. ‘You’ve been following me, snooping around. Talk about illegal.’

‘Here’s what’s on the sheet of paper,’ Khaneja said, showing him a photo of the document. ‘Looks like Vikram’s handwriting to me. I call that sabotage. And also shooting yourself in your own foot. The document’s been sent to my home office and our people are already on the case. Your little conspiracy is worthless now. You’ve been caught red-handed. Vikram is already offline. Now you decide how you want to play it. You going to cooperate or are you going to go down in flames? Do you want people to know how you came by that incriminating paper?’ de Vries said nothing. He looked at the traffic streaming by, and Khaneja’s earnest face. ‘Or is this something you and Shivani are plotting?’ Khaneja asked him.

‘You leave Shivani out of this.’

‘No. I need to know your game with her. If you guys have been colluding I want to know, because then she hasn’t been telling us everything either. And by the way you owe me a couple hundred euros. I made that police report go away. You can’t imagine what it would have cost if they had filed charges. You’d have been stuck here for a month or two at least. Why don’t you pay me in cash, right now, before we do anything else? And then look in the glovebox and grab me the papers for my car. I have to go see that cop. And while I work things out with him, why don’t you think about what you want to tell me, OK?’

Jan de Vries exhaled slowly. ‘I didn’t know you spoke Flemish,’ he said.

 

First the man touched his feet, then welcomed him formally to their simple business. That was a shock. Then he asked if tea had been served, if the gentleman wanted something to eat. Raj Kumarji refused. Then he inquired as to the voyage, if he required a place to freshen up or rest. He observed that Raj Kumarji must have travelled many miles and that he would be the guest of the company for anything he needed. Raj Kumarji said that was none of his business. The ASI stood behind Raj Kumarji, and added nothing. Before Raj Kumarji could protest Ricky ordered Hari Bhaiyya to book a room at the Lemon Tree hotel for the gentleman and his nephew for the night, but Raj Kumarji would have no more of it.

‘Young man, you know why I am here,’ he said. ‘So let’s forget the false politeness. I am here for my daughter and you must produce her at once.’

‘I am so honoured to meet you, sir,’ Ricky attempted.

‘Don’t insult me with words like that,’ Raj Kumarji said, narrowing his eyes, the compulsive twitch at the side of his mouth more pronounced. ‘I have come all the way to Delhi to deal with this in person. I was led to believe this was a reputable company. I would never have allowed my daughter to accept employment here if I knew she would be subjected to fortune-hunters. Now she has become entangled with a rogue who has seduced her. This threatens the honour of my family, and your company offends me by sending some junior person to deal with my protest. I want to see the owner and I want to see him now, not some professional greeter wearing jeans and sport shoes.’

Hari Bhaiyya spoke up. ‘Raj Kumarji, this is Ricky Talsera, he is one of the owners.’

‘You are owner of this company?’

‘I and two partners,’ Ricky admitted. ‘We take the welfare of our team very seriously. That is why I came to you as soon as I was able.’

‘You are the owner,’ Raj Kumarji repeated.

‘They call me the managing partner,’ Ricky said. ‘I take a personal interest in every human being here. Your daughter is no exception.’

‘You encourage your employees to socialize outside of the workplace,’ Raj Kumarji said, his irritation rising. ‘You make all these claims to families, and then you allow our children to run wild. Produce my daughter immediately. She is not at her guest house, and I was told she was here, working late tonight. This conversation is over. I am taking her home.’

‘Would you consider hearing our side of the story?’

‘I would not!’ Raj Kumarji shouted. ‘Is Adita here? If she is, I order you to take me to her.’

ASI Pathenia interrupted. ‘I believe that is a good idea,’ he said to Ricky. ‘Let us settle this in a civilized way. There is no need for any more discussion, sir. This father has come to collect his daughter and it is getting late. They have a long trip home. Now, where is the girl?’

Ricky Talsera looked at Hari Bhaiyya, who said nothing.

‘Constables,’ said ASI Pathenia, pointing at Ricky. ‘Arrest this man.’ The constables moved towards Ricky, and the two Talsera security guards stood as close to him as they could without appearing to resist.

‘Adita is in the building, Ricky-Sir,’ Hari Bhaiyya blurted out. ‘I can take you to her.’

‘But won’t you at least listen to our side of the story?’ Ricky said. ‘We really value Adita …’

‘You have no authority in this matter,’ ASI Pathenia said, reaching for his handcuffs. ‘I want to see the girl, and I want to see her now.’

‘You will have our full cooperation,’ Ricky said.

‘Very sensible,’ Raj Kumarji said, standing up. He nodded to his nephew, then the constables. He ignored Ricky Talsera and Hari, and waited for someone to make a move. ‘ASI?’

Ramesh Pathenia nodded at Hari, who led the group up the stairs. It was a strange procession, Hari Bhaiyya in the lead, followed by Raj Kumarji, Ricky, then the ASI. The constables and security guards were the last in line, clambering after. Up the winding staircase they went, to the third-floor landing, across the open plan office of empty cubicles, to the back staircase, passing Hari’s sleeping cubby, arriving at the door to the roof terrace. There Hari stopped, and allowed all the men to catch up before he opened the door.

 

Outside on the terrace, Ravi tried to calm Adita. He had received her SMS when he was in the TT room of Building 2, where he was waiting with the three Patel brothers for a fresh helping of idli that the kitchen was making up. They had rushed over as soon as her SMS arrived. Adita had texted:

 

Father is here! Meet me on roof Bldg 3 immdtly

 

Instinctively he understood the idea of strength in numbers, so he had asked the brothers to go with him. They were not a threatening lot—the oldest was an opera fanatic, the middle brother was a chess grand master, and the youngest spent most of his free time in the Xbox room. But they were his closest friends and he had brought them up to the roof with him, just in case her father got unreasonable. Ravi told her he would go down to the canteen and talk directly to her father, and just as Adita was shaking her head no the door from the staircase burst open and a procession of men led by Hari Bhaiyya stormed onto the roof.

Raj Kumarji took immediate note of the clean-cut boy who was seated on a bench next to his daughter, and held her hand. ‘Mahesh!’ he shouted to his nephew, pointing at Adita, and the young man in the Megadeth T-shirt rushed at Ravi, intending to push him aside, and grab the girl. He did not count on the Patel brothers, who shuffled in between him and his target. ‘Seize her!’ Raj Kumarji shouted, as a confused scuffle began between the nephew and Ravi’s friends, who were unaccustomed to fisticuffs of any sort. In no time two of the Patels were down on the ground and the third had tackled Mahesh and struggled with him on the sandy rooftop. Shoba and Harpreet had leaped up as he charged and were screaming at the nephew to leave them alone. The two Talsera security guards joined the fracas, and tried to separate the Patels from the nephew. Hari Bhaiyya, Ricky and ASI Pathenia held back at the doorway, watching the fracas, unsure of how to join in.

Raj Kumarji had seen enough. He pushed aside the police constables and tried to reach Adita, but again the Patels interceded, and Mahesh broke free from the Talsera guards and headed for Ravi, who had stood up and was approaching her father with his hands upraised in a conciliatory gesture. Before he could reach Raj Kumarji he was tackled by the nephew, and they fell together to the edge of roof, where Mahesh held Ravi’s head over the four-storey drop.

‘Ravi!’ Adita cried, rushing to his aid, but she was prevented from helping by the police constables, who stepped between her and the two wrestling boys. One of the Patel brothers grabbed Raj Kumarji’s nephew by his feet and pulled him away from the precipice. Mahesh jumped up, and looked in the direction of Raj Kumarji for instructions. Ravi stood up and dusted off his jeans.

‘Get her, you fool!’ Raj Kumarji shouted, pointing at Adita.

By now Shoba and Harpreet were squared off against Mahesh, who did not want to risk being slapped by two obviously pissed off girls. Two of the Patel brothers saw Raj Kumarji heading for Ravi, and they grabbed him by the arms and kept him back. Raj Kumarji struggled, but the Patel brothers held him fast.

‘Father!’ Adita shouted, and rushed to the old man’s side.

‘No! Let him go!’ Ravi ordered the brothers, who released Raj Kumarji. The security guards let go of Ravi and headed for Adita.

‘Not her—him!’ Raj Kumarji screamed. His nephew leaped at Ravi, and the two fell to the ground again, wrestling at the parapet. The constables looked at ASI Pathenia, who tried to make sense of who was who. Which of the three girls was the daughter? Which was the boy? Who were all these other people?

‘Hold him while I get my daughter!’ Raj Kumarji ordered.

By the doorway, Ricky Talsera and ASI Pathenia studiously ignored each other. They watched Ravi continue to struggle with Mahesh. Raj Kumarji stood over the boys, barking commands, ‘Grab his arm! Knock him on the head!’ he cried.

Adita watched the brawl in progress. ‘Stop it, Mahesh!’ she screamed at her cousin, who now held Ravi in a headlock, and he looked expectantly at Raj Kumarji. But Raj Kumarji had been surrounded by the Patels, and confronted with three huffing and puffing, bruised and bloody brothers, he chose not to move. ‘Don’t let that boy go!’ he shouted to his nephew.

By this time Hari Bhaiyya had moved over to the area where the altercation was in progress, and he told the security guards to remove the Patel brothers. But the guards were friends with the brothers, and they chose not to use brute force, so they began to speak to the brothers gently, urging them to step away from the fighting. Ravi continued to writhe around with Mahesh, and the two constables decided they had better separate the girls, so they attempted to move Adita, Harpreet and Shoba off to the side. It didn’t work. Now the three young women started to harangue the constables. ‘Calm yourselves, ladies,’ the guards attempted, but the women would not be silenced.

Over by the door, Ricky Talsera stepped next to ASI Pathenia, and their eyes met. ‘Tell me how much baksheesh and let’s solve this problem,’ he said.

ASI Pathenia had already made his calculations and was ready for the question. ‘I think fifty thousand ought to do it,’ he said.

Ricky looked at Ravi and the nephew still going at it. It definitely looked like the nephew was losing some ground. ‘Twenty thousand,’ he said.

Theek hai,’ ASI Pathenia said. At that exact moment, Ravi gained a momentary advantage, a strange balletic somersault occurred, and Raj Kumarji’s nephew went over the side of the building with a grunt. All the action stopped. Ravi stood up, a surprised look on his face, and walked to the parapet. He looked down.

‘He’s fallen into the solar panel array below,’ he said. ‘I am really sorry. I didn’t mean for him to flip over like that. We had better get down there and see if he’s OK. He’s moving, but he’s not getting up.’

All fourteen people who remained on the roof now proceeded to the edge, where they stood in a line and looked down at Mahesh, sprawled out among the solar panels. Raj Kumarji appeared to be stunned by the sudden turn of events. He looked at Adita and her girlfriends, at Ravi, and at the very battered Patel brothers. This boy has quite loyal friends, he thought. And those friends of Adita’s really put up a fight, too. Adita walked over to her father.

‘Have you had enough excitement, Pitaji?’ she asked.

‘Everyone will please follow me,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. He led the whole group down to the lower floor, out to the shallow terrace which had broken the nephew’s fall. Ricky and ASI Pathenia lingered on the staircase a few extra minutes and money changed hands.

 

As soon as Khaneja climbed out of the car, Jan de Vries got on the phone to Shivani. She didn’t even say hello.

‘Where the hell are you?’ she screamed. ‘Still in jail?’

‘No. That was all a misunderstanding,’ de Vries said. ‘All cleared up now. I’m on my way back to my hotel in Khaneja’s car, but we’ve stopped next to a big airfield or something. Why don’t you meet me in the bar around midnight? We’ll have a drink-’

‘Not so fast. First tell me—what’s this shit about you meeting Vikram?’

‘Who’s Vikram? Oh, you mean that kid who was trying to con me?’

‘You never mentioned anything about it to me.’

‘I didn’t take it seriously.’

‘You took it seriously enough to meet him at Karim’s.’

‘I was trying to find out how much he knew. I walked into the middle of some drug sting, and your friend Khaneja bailed me out.’

‘He let them press charges?’

De Vries chuckled. ‘Not a chance. We bribed somebody and the whole thing went away. So what about it, Shiv, want to meet me at my hotel later? I’d need a bath and a power nap first; then we could hook up for a midnight dinner. What say?’

‘You don’t know anything more about what Vikram was up to?’

‘Shivani, it was the first time I was setting eyes on the guy. How could I know I was dealing with a delusional nerd? You can’t make out who is what on the internet.’

‘I better not get any more surprises,’ she said. ‘I find out you were lying to me, you’re gonna get in some big trouble.’

‘I’m betting we hook up in the Seychelles. Whoa, Khaneja’s coming. He must have solved his problem.’

‘Well, I have a meeting to attend down here. I’ll check in with you after it. Bye.’ And she hung up.

 

‘Remember our deal,’ Jaitendra said to Shaitan Vikram. ‘You keep your mouth shut all the way to the car, no matter what I do. You say a word and I will break your jaw. Clear?’

‘Clear,’ Vikram said.

The Nigerian had been lingering below near the intersection of the paths but when they started down the stairs, he scurried across the plaza and walked into the shadows at the far side. Jaitendra walked right over to him, dragging Vikram along, occasionally grabbing his shirt front and yanking him forward, and halted in front of the doorway where he could see the Nigerian hiding, smoking his cigarette.

‘We’re leaving now,’ Jaitendra told the shadowy figure. ‘I’m taking this gentleman for a little ride; you’re welcome to try and follow us. But I’m going to do everything in my power to lose you. Don’t try anything stupid, or endanger any innocent people. Or you answer to me.’

The Nigerian never left the shadows, just smoked and listened. When Jaitendra fired up his car, he saw the Nigerian in the rearview mirror, pulling his own vehicle into the street behind them, in cool pursuit.

‘So you remember our deal?’ Vikram said.

‘Of course I remember. If I say I’ll do it, I will,’ Jaitendra said. ‘But you have to do your part first.’

‘If I do it, I get the money and the girl. Right?’

‘That’s right. But only after you deliver on your promise.’

‘The money,’ Vikram said. ‘And the girl.’

‘Correct.’

 

From her apartment window Neha watched them drive away. He had given her specific instructions, and one of them was to get out of her apartment as fast as she could. She didn’t need to ask him why. Neha packed her case, but she didn’t wear one of her uniforms. She looked around the flat, wondering when she would next see it. She made sure everything was put away, the dal into the fridge, then she locked her door and set off for the taxi stand in her sensible shoes, dragging her rolling bag behind her.

 

 

Chapter 20

 

‘What finally happened with Raj Kumarji?’ Ricky asked Hari Bhaiyya.

‘He decided to take us up on the offer of the room night at the Lemon Tree,’ Hari answered. ‘The Assistant Sub-Inspector had a private word with him, but I think the old man had changed his mind about Ravi before then.’

‘Yes,’ Ricky agreed. ‘The kid put up quite a fight for the girl. And remember he ordered his friends to release her father in the middle of the fight.’

‘You didn’t see it, but when we went down to the solar panels to look at his nephew, Raj Kumarji almost electrocuted himself—Ravi grabbed him before he could turn into a human French fry.’

Ricky Talsera laughed. ‘That Ravi’s a pretty decent boy. He will respect her family, you can be certain.’

‘It also helped when Adita told her Dad how much money she had made playing the stock market with her girlfriends. Those Thursday night meetings of theirs. Suddenly her Dad doesn’t think Talsera is such a bad place to work.’

‘Thank goodness Khaneja-ji was able to send the boy to Dr Narayan, too,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘Everybody likes that doctor.’

‘So what do I need to know about Nitin’s father? Is he going to be furious?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Hari Bhaiyya. ‘He’s going to try and reason with you.’

‘That’s not necessary,’ Ricky said. ‘The kid stays in the company.’

‘You could do a lot for Nitin if you let his Dad win.’

‘Okay,’ Ricky Talsera said. ‘Sounds easy enough. The father wins.’ He looked at his watch. He didn’t have much time before the fireworks. ‘Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long. I have a full plate tonight.’

‘I will get him immediately,’ Hari Bhaiyya said.

Six minutes to pull himself together, Ricky Talsera thought. He wondered what had become of de Vries, and if Jaitendra would be able to bring Vikram back to Gurgaon, and what magic tricks Khaneja had to perform. And his mind returned to Shaalu, but only for a flickering moment, since Hari Bhaiyya again opened the conference-room door, escorting in a middle-aged man, quite average and mild in appearance, followed by Nitin, unusually docile, his eyes downcast.

‘You are Mr Talsera-ji?’ Nitin’s father asked. ‘I have the pleasure?’

‘Welcome,’ said Ricky. ‘How can I be of service?’

‘My son Nitin was dismissed from your company earlier today, under circumstances which I do not fully understand. If I could get a better picture of what has happened, perhaps we would be able to help Nitin appreciate where he has displeased his employer. Or what he can do better in his next job, that is, if he cannot return to your good graces. Can I know why he was asked to resign so suddenly.’

‘She said it was a difference in styles …’ Nitin interjected.

‘Nitin, please. I am speaking with Mr Talsera-ji, so do not interrupt. Was there a problem with my son’s performance on the job, sir? Did he fall short of some goal or quota?’

‘Not to my knowledge,’ Ricky said.

‘Did he break some company rule?’

‘No, absolutely not,’ Ricky said. ‘In fact, Nitin had been working on something very special for us.’

‘Then what is this difference of style? Is it some term related to computerization?’

Ricky Talsera smiled. ‘It is a poor excuse,’ he said. ‘Something people use when a good enough reason cannot be given.’

‘You see,’ Nitin’s father said, ‘I come to you not only on Nitin’s behalf, but on behalf of our whole family. Nitin is the only source of income we have. I retired two years ago, poor health, around the time when he joined your company. His mother does not work. I can’t say there’s that much left in savings. We depend completely on his salary.’

Ricky Talsera watched the man, and he understood how difficult it must have been him to have asked for such a meeting, to have made such an appeal, to have revealed such details. ‘Nitin was doing good work for us,’ he said. ‘And I heard excellent things about his special project. His resignation came as quite a surprise to me as well. I am prepared to …’

At that very instant there emanated from the area outside the conference room the noise of a commotion, shouting, first two men, then a woman, scuffling and stumbling about. Then suddenly the door to the conference room was thrust open and Shivani barged in, followed by two hapless security men and Hari Bhaiyya. ‘What’s he doing here?’ she demanded, pointing at Nitin. ‘And who’s he?’ she derisively asked, pointing at Nitin’s father. She turned towards the security guards and screamed, ‘You dare touch me!’

‘He’s Nitin’s father,’ Ricky Talsera said. ‘And it’s alright, Hari Bhaiyya, you can leave us. Just keep the security guards by the door. Nobody leaves or comes in without your approval.’

Haanji, sir,’ said Hari Bhaiyya.

‘What are these two doing here?’ Shivani repeated. ‘Nitin resigned this afternoon. End of story. Thanks for coming by, now you can both go home.’

‘Not quite,’ Ricky said. ‘Sit down, Shivani. This was an unofficial termination, and you had no authority to do it. You didn’t go through me, left HR completely out of the loop. And you threw Nitin out while he was in the midst of a confidential project for Rajan. Nitin was almost about to locate the person who broke into our email, the source of those anonymous blog posts that were trashing your own project.’

‘Sir, I know where they were coming from …’ Nitin said.

‘You keep out of this,’ Shivani said.

‘Who is this woman?’ Nitin’s father asked.

‘She is Shivani madam,’ Nitin said, and his father sat up a little straighter and regarded her shrewdly.

‘What is so wrong with my son’s style that you asked him to resign because of it?’ he asked her.

‘I can’t believe this!’ Shivani said, looking at Ricky. ‘You’re going to let some parent come in and tell you how to run your company?’

‘Relax, Shivani,’ Ricky said, exhaling deeply himself. ‘This man came to speak on his son’s behalf, and I think he has an excellent case for reinstatement. Plus Nitin had almost nailed the negative blogger.’

‘Well, we don’t need Nitin to tell us that. I’ve discovered who the blogger was and it’s all been taken care of. This is the kind of thing you want to be discussing with an ex-employee in the room?’

‘Nitin, can you provide us with evidence of who the blogger was, where those messages came from, the kind of documentation that might hold up in a court of law?’

‘Sure, sir.’

‘That’s ridiculous, Ricky,’ Shivani said. ‘I told you I made it all go away. You don’t need this boy.’

Ricky ignored Shivani and continued to address Nitin. ‘Good. Now, would you consider returning to work tomorrow and finish out the project for us?’ Shivani stared at him, open-mouthed. ‘And after you’re done would you consider returning to our company as a full-time employee, like you were before this improper resignation occurred? I am also recommending you for a raise if you successfully complete the project.’

‘Yes, sir! I can return to work immediately!’ Nitin blurted out. ‘I will have all the necessary documentation for you first thing tomorrow. I will work all night!’

Shivani gave off with an inelegant snort. ‘Everybody in this place has lost their mind,’ she said. ‘Get a grip, Ricky.’

‘Also, Nitin, Rajan has agreed to mentor you.’

‘Who is this Rajan?’ Nitin’s father asked.

‘Crazy,’ Shivani said. ‘You guys are asking for trouble.’

‘You are a very odd woman,’ Nitin’s father said. ‘Why are you so impolite to everyone?’

Shivani stood up. ‘I’m not taking this,’ she said.

‘Sit down, Shivani,’ Ricky Talsera said. ‘You’re not going anywhere. We’re about to have the RoodInfo status review, and you’re hanging around for it. Nitin, I must ask you and your father to leave us alone if our business is settled. And, Shivani, now don’t say anything. Nothing.’

 

The traffic cop wanted to challan him for a thousand, but Khaneja apologized, said he was in a hurry, asked if he could please the cop in some other way.

‘Two hundred,’ the cop said.

Khaneja handed him a ₹500 note, got his receipt but no change, and headed back into traffic. The highway was clogged with vehicles flowing in and out of Haryana, every manner of conveyance, and Khaneja wove around broad trucks and smoke-spewing buses and two-wheelers amid the unending cacophony of horns.

‘Wait a moment,’ de Vries ventured. ‘Isn’t that my hotel we just passed?’

‘It is,’ Khaneja answered, staring straight ahead.

‘So where are we going?’

‘To your status review.’

‘That’s absurd. It was cancelled. I want to go to my hotel. I’m not prepared. I’ve been in a jail all afternoon. You can’t just do this to me. I need to bathe, I need to eat, I need to make some calls, some notes.’

Khaneja swooped off the flyover, piloting his car down into the melancholy avenues of Gurgaon, and turned left in the direction of the Electronic City. ‘You can do that later. At the moment, a lot of people want to talk to you. So we’re going straight to the office.’

 

An uneasy silence prevailed in the large conference room where Ricky and Shivani waited. The wide plastic vent on the wall-mounted air-conditioner unit moved up and down in its rhythmic way, throwing a stream of cool air over the tabletop. Shivani tapped her lacquered fingernails impatiently for a while. Finally she said, ‘If you don’t mind I’m gonna check my emails.’ And she took out her Blackberry and started scrolling.

‘Hold on,’ she said suddenly. ‘There’s a farewell blog post up from that Knight-touring bastard. He says he deleted all the negative posts about us and that he was wrong about everything. Says he’s sorry. A bunch of people have already pinged me about it. I told you I had it under control.’

Ricky looked at his watch. Where was Khaneja?

 

At that exact moment Khaneja was parking his car outside Building 3. In one sense he was happy it was dark and de Vries couldn’t see the surroundings, but then he remembered he did not give a damn what the Dutchman thought anymore. He’d figured out that Talsera had been the victim of Vikram’s duplicity and de Vries’s connivance, and he wanted to see where Shivani fit into that nonsense. With luck, she would be in the conference room with Ricky, waiting.

They found Hari Bhaiyya out by the little blockhouse. He escorted them upstairs, where two security men guarded the door to the big conference room.

‘What’s with the goons?’ Jan de Vries asked. ‘This is your office building?’

‘One of them,’ Khaneja said. Hari Bhaiyya opened the door, and Ricky Talsera stood up and introduced himself.

‘Hello, Shiv,’ de Vries said. ‘Nobody told me you were going to be here as well. Ready to clear the air and move forward?’

‘Yes,’ Shivani said. ‘Let’s clear the effing air. What have you been up to? You went out to Old Delhi and you didn’t tell me?’

‘Personal business …’ de Vries attempted.

‘Seems Mr de Vries went to Karim’s on his own and had a brush with the underworld,’ Khaneja said.

‘I wasn’t asking you,’ Shivani said. ‘And I want answers now. From everybody here. You first, Khaneja. You tell me what you found out.’

Ricky cleared his throat. ‘I called this meeting, Shivani, so I’ll run the discussion from here on. Why don’t you begin by telling us what you were doing with Mr de Vries at the Radisson two days running? The barman remembers you and so does the desk man. According to the doorman you two …’

‘What business is that of yours?’ de Vries said angrily. ‘What’s this got to do with the job?’

‘You tell me,’ Ricky said.

‘So you’ve been spying on me!’ Shivani shouted. ‘This is the thanks I get for bringing in such a big contract? You have no idea what I have had to do to keep this job moving forward.’

‘Shivani and I are renewing an old friendship,’ de Vries said. ‘Has nothing to do with the project, nothing at all. Strictly extracurricular. As for that kid, he solicited me and I just wanted to see what his game was. It did seem he had the juice to deliver what he claimed he could. Look at the havoc he wreaked on your people. Also, I had no idea he was a one-man show until today.’

‘How did you figure that out?’ Ricky asked.

‘I told him,’ Khaneja said. ‘We’ve been keeping an eye on Vikram. I think I have a pretty good idea what’s he’s been doing. Mr de Vries needed to know what we had found out.’

‘Thanks for telling me,’ Shivani said. ‘My client, my account, and you keep me in the dark.’

‘And you terminate people without going through channels. Do you have any idea what that could have cost us, Shivani?’ Ricky said. ‘Reputation in the job market. That ever crossed your mind?’

‘Well, if you don’t appreciate the job I’m doing …’

‘The client wishes to speak,’ Jan de Vries said. ‘Are any of you interested in my opinion? You are? First, Danny Khaneja got me out of that goddamn jail. I don’t know how he did it, but I’m thankful for that. Second, those blog posts were an irritant, I never thought much of them in the first place. The fact that somebody has tracked the bad guy down and engineered the retraction is impressive. But things that kid pointed out, they concern me still, and I will need to see that your work is bullet-proof before we decide whether we want to keep our business with you.’

‘So you’re willing to stay with us,’ Ricky said.

‘If my team checks out the latest updates and they look good, I see no reason to discontinue the relationship for the present,’ de Vries said, looking at Khaneja.

‘Great. And I intend to fully supervise every aspect from now on,’ Shivani said.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ Ricky said. ‘I think it’s time you took a long vacation, Shivani. We’ll pay you the commissions, but I want you out of the management loop from now on. Your presence is toxic here. Don’t look so shocked. I’m asking for your resignation.’

‘Yes,’ Khaneja said. ‘We have a difference in styles.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Shivani said, narrowing her dark eyes. ‘I’m not going along with it, Ricky. You can’t ask me to leave. I helped build this company. I drove my teams to excellence.’

‘You are right. Drove,’ Khaneja said. ‘The definition of wisdom is knowing when to say "enough".’

‘I hate to interrupt your little quarrel,’ de Vries said, ‘but none of this concerns me …’

‘You shut up,’ Shivani cried. ‘I’m staying on the project until it’s done, then we will talk about my resignation. And let me assure you, it’s gonna cost you. A lot.’

‘Maybe you do need a little vacation, Shivani,’ Jan de Vries said. ‘Little trip to a tropical island, beach? Something to reduce the stress in your life. Looks like these guys can handle things on their own.’

Shivani glared at him. ‘Why’re you suddenly so cooperative?’ she asked. ‘Wait a minute. I get it. Khaneja has something on you.’

 

To be concluded

 

 

 

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