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The Hacker

LIVING The parties all come to a head as Jaitendra delivers Shaitan Vikram to Talsera, with more unexpected turns to come, as we reach the conclusion of travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker

 

 

 

Previous page: Chapters 17–20

Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 21

 

‘Perfect,’ thought Shaitan Vikram, ‘so this is what it has come down to. The Einstein conference room on the second floor of Building 3, Hari outside the door, backed up by two security dudes. Dark outside. Sitting across from me—everybody who ever tried to ruin my professional life.’

Jaitendra hadn’t made a big scene when he had delivered Vikram to the conference room. He had knocked politely, opened the door slowly, got cold stares from everybody at the table, installed Vikram to Ricky’s right. Stood in the space between him and Shivani, nodded to Ricky. Said, ‘Man,’ as a greeting to Danny Khaneja, and ‘Must be the Dutch guy,’ glancing at Jan de Vries.

‘Don’t you dare touch me,’ Shivani warned Jaitendra.

‘No, I wouldn’t,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You may have tantric powers. I think everyone here knows Vikram, yes? I must inform you Vikram’s being very cooperative. He’s even willing to tell his side of the story.’

‘He’d better goddamn well,’ Shivani muttered. Nobody spoke up, so she went silent, and stared at Vikram. Jan de Vries looked down at the plate of biscuits, took one, nibbled at it.

Vikram sat hunched in his chair. He was just getting back to normal after being tackled by Jaitendra and then shocked by that bitch and then tied to a fucking chair for two hours as he watched his whole universe being deleted.

‘I have some questions,’ Ricky said, looking intently at Vikram. ‘Start with talking about stolen passwords when you broke into our firewall,’ Ricky said.

‘Oh, I needed them,’ Vikram said, beginning to register some enthusiasm. ‘Needed to watch the video feeds, read the mails, wander around the project looking at what the developers were doing, keep an eye on people at the office, stay on top of who was working. It was easy to mess up RoodInfo, nobody knew I was there. It was perfect. I was like the invisible man.’

‘You were going to blow up my project from the inside just to get back at me?’ Shivani said.

‘No way,’ Vikram said. ‘I was just wanted you guys to suffer.’

‘That’s pathetic. You ever thought about how illegal this was, you stupid little shit?’ Shivani asked. ‘I could go after you so bad you’d never recover. I can ruin you, you may never get to do business in this industry ever again. Anywhere in the world.’

‘I was not leaving any tracks, you know,’ Vikram said, speaking to Ricky, ignoring Shivani. ‘More like I was working against the company, if you get the difference. See, if I could have helped Mr de Vries, then it would have been a win–win–win situation. I could have made some money, he would have got a better deal, and you guys would’ve learned an important lesson. And it almost worked, didn’t it?’ His little eyes shifted back and forth from Shivani to Jaitendra to Khaneja and back.

‘I’m curious about the negative blog posts,’ Khaneja said. ‘What was that supposed to accomplish?’

‘Hey, it was a negotiating point for my client. Made Talsera vulnerable. It almost worked. Don’t worry—we took them down, they’re all deleted now, all erased, and I posted a big apology to everyone.’ He looked at Jaitendra, who nodded.

‘If you are implying that I ever retained you to do any kind of business, then you are either delusional or crazy. We never paid you a cent,’ de Vries said. ‘I never set eyes on you until today. You defrauded me, you pretended to be a hip young Indian company, not a human resources’ problem. Do you have any idea how much trouble you have caused?’

‘I’m getting the idea,’ Vikram said. ‘I’m very sorry.’

‘You realize you violated every privacy law known to man,’ Shivani said. ‘You could have brought down the whole company! That is harsh.’

‘Harsh,’ Vikram said. ‘It is. I am sorry I came off as the bad guy. But you know what, Shivani? You are a big problem all the time as well. You are not a very nice person to other people either.’

Shivani shot him a savage look. ‘Hey, Vikram,’ Jaitendra interrupted, ‘what really happened in San Francisco? You took those freshers to a gambling parlour?’

Vikram snickered, wore a sick little smile on his face. ‘I took them to Reno,’ he said. ‘Played blackjack in an important casino, and I won big. We got home before curfew right under her nose and nobody came to know.’ Vikram snickered again, hunched down in the chair.

‘That’s everything?’ Ricky asked. Jaitendra nodded.

‘You have a rehab plan for Vikram?’ Khaneja asked.

‘He and I have a deal. Don’t we, Vikram? I had considered terminating him with extreme prejudice.’

‘I’d vote for that,’ Shivani said. ‘I say we throw him into a vat of fresh cement somewhere along the new metro line and forget about him.’

‘Shivani, you’re fired, as of now,’ Ricky said. ‘It’s an exceptional circumstance for the company, but I’ve had enough of you. You should leave us right now. Hari will escort you out.’

‘That was awesome, sir,’ Vikram said.

‘I’m satisfied,’ de Vries said. ‘Come on, Shivani, let me buy you a consolation drink. Leave these guys to clean things up. Time to delegate, you understand?’

‘Ricky, I put a lot into this. And suddenly I am unwanted?’ Shivani asked.

‘That’s right,’ Khaneja said. ‘You had better go.’

‘There will be lawyers,’ Shivani said.

‘Always are,’ Khaneja said. ‘But mine are bigger than yours.’

‘Somebody’s going to pay,’ she said.

‘I’m going to let the next status review happen between you and my staff,’ de Vries said to no one in particular. ‘I have complete confidence in you. Now, I hope to be on the first flight out of this place tomorrow morning.’ Let’s get out of here, he motioned to Shivani. Shivani leaped to her feet and stood nose to nose with Jaitendra, but since she was a good six inches shorter than him, she had to rise up on her toes inside her high-heeled black shoes.

‘What do you have on him?’ she demanded.

Khaneja said, ‘Shivani, come on.’

‘If it’s the money you are worried about, you’ll get your part of it,’ Ricky said. ‘We plugged the leaks and kept the account and removed the threat. We’ll see the project through and move on to the next. Without you. Don’t look at me like that, Shivani. Time to go.’

 

Once the door had closed behind them, Vikram said, ‘So now what about me?’

‘The deal is on,’ Jaitendra said to him and then turned to Ricky. ‘Ricky, I turned off the blog, locked him out of our network and wiped every one of his hard drives clean, even his back-up drives. He says he doesn’t have any other back-ups and for once I believe him.’

‘You erased my best games. All my research, all my projects.’

‘All your porn and all our proprietary files. I figured a fresh start was needed.’

‘What is the deal? You’re planning to let him go?’ Ricky said.

‘Yes. The deal goes like this: he comes clean and we give him the chance to start over. He stays out of our business, out of our lives from now on, banished. Right, Vikram?’

‘Right,’ Vikram said. ‘As far away from you as I can get. As soon as I can.’

‘And if he ever gets near us again, he understands that I will not be so generous.’

‘Good,’ Ricky said. ‘But, Vikram, I don’t think you ever understood a simple fact, and I’m not sure you would understand it now but I am going to try and say it anyway. Talsera is not the biggest company in the world, but we are one of the best because we take care of our people. This whole episode tells me you never got that idea. What you almost accomplished would have affected the livelihoods of four hundred people. That’s the worst part. That’s what I lose sleep over. That’s the fact you don’t seem to understand.’

Vikram shrugged. ‘I guess I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But that kind of makes me a success, doesn’t it? I did what I set out to do. Almost.’

‘In a perverse way, yes,’ Khaneja admitted. ‘But, it’s a twisted definition of success, Vikram. It doesn’t focus on the greater good for mankind.’

‘Wait a minute. You’re not gonna kill me, are you?’

‘I’m going to keep you guessing on that front is what I’m gonna do. Time for you to wait for me down in the car,’ Jaitendra said and sent a trembling Vikram off with the guards.

Now, only the three men who ran the company were left in the conference room.

‘When was the last time we three actually got together like this?’ Khaneja wondered aloud. ‘Just the three of us. We ought to do this more often and also entice Rajan out of his cave. He’s missing all this fun.’

Jaitendra held up the little white flash drive he had used at Vikram’s lair. ‘I brought back a bunch of Vikram’s files. I want you to quarantine the whole lot and put a team of our people on them. Let’s see what we learn. Fair’s fair, it’s our backyard he was playing in. I bet we’d get some good information from it.’

‘What made the Dutchman turn so agreeable?’

‘The list Vikram gave him at Karim’s,’ Khaneja said. ‘That was another reason why Vikram got so sweet. We have photos of them meeting and of the note being passed. I even got hold of the note. It was a list of all the sabotage he did on the project. You notice neither of them brought it up?’

‘That must have been part of your deal with de Vries?’ Ricky said. ‘You never mentioned the sabotage letter earlier.’

‘Neither did Vikram,’ Khaneja said. ‘We made sure of that.’

‘It’s amazing,’ Jaitendra remarked. ‘It wasn’t the blog posts or the sabotage that did him in. It was an old-fashioned hand-written letter.’

 

As the car rode through the darkened Delhi streets into the center of the city, Jaitendra ended a call on his mobile phone.

‘Is it true that you never took a vacation all these years?’ Vikram asked. ‘They were sure surprised when you asked for some days off. They thought you meant a week. You asked for a month.’

‘I asked for at least a month,’ Jaitendra corrected him.

‘Is it true you killed a bunch of enemy soldiers in Kargil? People say you stormed a hilltop.’

Jaitendra didn’t acknowledge the question.

‘You really are my hero, sir. So where are we going? Can we go out for a beer together? Hang out a little?’

No reply.

There wasn’t much traffic on the Aurangzeb Road. They turned down a narrow lane which led to the rear entrance of a huge, walled compound.

 

EMBAIXADA DO BRASIL
EN NOVA DELHI

 

‘Give me your passport,’ Jaitendra ordered. Vikram passed it over. A guard carrying a submachine gun opened the gate. He seemed to know Jaitendra because he saluted and said, ‘Major’, motioned them in and closed the gate behind them. Jaitendra counted out $1,000 from Vikram’s envelope, handed it off with some papers through the window. The guard said, ‘Be right back, sir,’ and disappeared from sight. Jaitendra turned the car nose out, so that it pointed to the gate which had closed behind them, and stopped the engine. Then they sat in the orange light and waited.

 

‘There you go,’ Jaitendra said to Shaitan Vikram. They were outside IGI Terminal 3. ‘You have a two-year visa and here’s your reservation. Let’s go inside and buy your ticket now.’

‘That was awesome at the embassy,’ Vikram said.

‘You owe me on that one. I called in a favour.’ They walked up to Door C, where an impassive Sikh in an impeccable uniform saluted them.

‘Good evening, Major,’ he said.

‘I’m just escorting my friend to the departure gate,’ Jaitendra said. The Sikh gave Vikram’s documents a perfunctory glance and saluted. ‘Nice to see you, Major,’ he said, waving them through.

‘Awesome,’ Vikram said.

At the currency exchange counter, Jaitendra counted out $2,500, got ₹100,000 and the rest in Brazilian reals, which he handed to Vikram. Then they walked to the counter and purchased the ticket to GRU.

‘How long is this flight?’ Vikram asked.

‘Twenty-three hours westbound. You don’t need to know eastbound, you’re not coming back in a hurry,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You change planes in Dubai. Don’t leave the airport, you don’t have a visa for Dubai. Your layover’s not that long anyway. Here’s $5,000 for spending money. Smart guy like you ought to make that go a long way.’

‘I hope you bought me a business class seat?’

‘Economy, Vikram. You need to learn to suffer a little.’

‘Aw, man, why’d you do that? What about the rest of my money?’

‘I’ve had some expenses: your ticket, your visa, petrol. There’s about nine grand left. Let’s talk about it in a year, see where you are. If I like what I see, I may pay you back.’

‘How will you know where I am?’

‘I’ll find you. You can be sure of that.’

‘You think that girl is gonna go out with me?’

‘An even chance,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Women can’t be explained, they’re running different software. It’s kind of up to you what happens next. See you later, Vikram.’

 

The message had come in from the New Delhi boy, one of several hundred she got every day from guys all over the world. Japanese guys who asked her to send them her used panties. Russian guys who suggested she do the crudest things for the camera, and attached pictures far less beautiful than anything she ever sent. Guys who proposed. Pitiful lonely guys in shadowy internet cafés from all over the planet. But this message had caught her attention, because this guy had been writing, chatting, joining her Facebook page, liking her on MySpace and pinging endlessly. She had told him she was fifteen, which was six years off, but if he couldn’t see the stretch marks in her pictures, that was his problem. She had suggested he send her money to help make the bikini wax video and he had said he would in a few weeks.

 

Arriving GRU in two days. Can we go out to dinner Thursday night? We can talk about the video. Maybe you can show me the city. My new email and mobile # will follow on arrival.

 

She couldn’t tell if it was real or not, but maybe this guy was actually going to show up and maybe he would be kind and friendly. He may even be the One, like the movie Mr Right. She stared across the little room she occupied, at her baby still asleep in the simple crib she had bought. He would be up soon, demand to be fed and she had emails to send. Some man in Athens wanted her to star in his video. A Chinese man wanted her phone number. ‘Lucia,’ she said to herself, ‘the boy from New Delhi is a much better bet.’

 

 

Chapter 22

 

Ricky and Khaneja, now the only occupants of the conference room, sat at the big table, both somewhat dazed after the many events of the day. A light knock at the door, and Hari Bhaiyya slipped in. ‘Is everything OK?’ he asked.

‘Fine,’ Ricky said. ‘Taking a breather. Anything more to report about Raj Kumarji?’ Hari Bhaiyya replied that the desk man at the Lemon Tree had called to say the old man had gone up to bed, and Adita and her girlfriends were sitting in the restaurant eating desserts.

Khaneja’s phone rang, he looked down at it and said, ‘Guys I need to take this.’ Khaneja picked up the handheld. ‘Hello doctor,’ he said. Paused. Listened. ‘Yes, yes, just fine, all fine. She is fine. Yes, the boy is growing. Yes, I should. Yes I will. Doc, thanks for admitting that kid who fell off the roof tonight. How’s he doing? You’re releasing him in the morning? You’re amazing. Doc, don’t worry about that contribution to the temple. Fifty thousand rupees? That’s very generous, Doc. You really don’t have to do that.’ From the tiny earpiece Dr Narayan’s distinctive laugh could be heard. Khaneja had to smile. ‘Doctor, I’m with a couple friends of yours. May I put you on the speaker? Here goes.’ He pushed a button and identified Ricky and Hari Bhaiyya.

Dr Narayan loved an audience. He said, ‘Listen: A guy goes in to see his doctor. The doctor says, “I’ve got bad news and terrible news.” Guy says, “Oh my God, what’s the terrible news?” Doctor says, “You’ve got terminal cancer.” Guy says, “Oh my God! And what’s the bad news?” Doctor says, “You’ve also got Alzheimer’s.” So the guy says, “Well, at least I don’t have cancer.”’

The joke released some of the tension in the conference room. As the doctor was hanging up, still chuckling at his joke, Ricky Talsera received an SMS. He looked down at the display and scowled. ‘Priyanka,’ he said. ‘I bet it’s about that girl and the dog. I don’t want to deal with this now after everything that just happened.’

‘I already took care of it,’ Hari Bhaiyya said. ‘I spoke to her earlier, told her what I thought the problem was, and Priyanka wanted to see if she could handle it herself. She’s an ambitious girl, the kind of person who could take over from you …’

‘… In forty years,’ Khaneja said.

‘… so I would advise letting her try handling things like this one all by herself.’

‘OK with me,’ Ricky said, looking down at the SMS.

 

Ricky I think I have found a resolution for the Pushpa and dog problem. I will report to you late tomorrow. Priyanka (HR)

 

Danny Khaneja smiled. ‘Sounds like a self-declared candidate for presidential succession to me,’ he said.

 

The Nigerian lurked in the doorway. He kept looking up at the fifth floor, at the corner apartment where Jaitendra had been. Nobody had come back yet. He wondered what was inside the place. Those guys from Talsera had ruined one of Big Boss’s coolest schemes ever. He’d almost persuaded some fat-assed Indian industrialist to put sixty crore rupees’ worth of machinery onto a ship in Kolkata, in exchange for some letters of credit and customs documents, which of course were all brilliant forgeries. Big Boss had given real account numbers, used real letterheads stolen from banks and consulates, had even used the correct seals. But somehow Khaneja, who was advising the industrialist, called up the top guy at the bank and the scam got exposed. The Indian industrialist never put the containers on the ship and Khaneja held on to the bogus documents.

Big Boss sent his boys to get the files back, which they did. But Khaneja found their hideout; the rumour was he had called Ajit Hooda himself to get their location. Later that night, while the boys were out playing cards, Khaneja and Jaitendra broke into the hideout and stole the documents a second time. Big Boss really didn’t like that and he made the boys miserable for losing the files twice. Then one night when the boys were out drinking beer, the two men from Talsera happened to walk into the same bar.

‘You know who we are?’ Big Boss asked, never getting up from his seat.

‘The losers whose scam wasn’t happening,’ Khaneja said.

Big Boss was not used to getting attitude like that. Two Indians squared off against six Nigerians and the military guy wasn’t even armed to the teeth like he was when they had broken into the hideout. But he still turned out to be fierce: he took two Nigerian thugs down in the first thirty seconds, while Khaneja went mano a mano with a really seasoned tough guy who was expert with a knife, but even then if Khaneja hadn’t caught a slash on his ear, he would have been the winner; not that it mattered because Jaitendra immediately hurled a big Godfather beer bottle expertly at the assailant and he dropped like a rock. Khaneja then picked up a chair and slammed Nigerian number five. And Jaitendra, wasting not a move, head-butted Nigerian number six into submission. The bar was a battlezone afterwards: broken furniture, shattered glass everywhere and groaning figures on the floor. The Indians got away, and Big Boss said, ‘From now on we follow those fucking Talsera guys and watch for an opportunity.’

‘Maybe this apartment was finally the opportunity Big Boss was waiting for,’ the Nigerian thought. He texted the boys and told them to get their butts over to Dwarka tout de suite. Right away.

 

He checked the backpack for his ticket, passport, visa, cash, laptop, phone charger. On his feet he wore his comfy slip-on travelling shoes. Khaneja closed his carry-on bag for the ten thousandth time and looked around his empty apartment. He liked the flat, though they hadn’t had much time to work on it. He was always away, and she was with their son the whole day. It was an airy penthouse flat, and if Gurgaon wasn’t so polluted, they would have spent more time on its terrace. His wife and son were at her parents’ in the country for the week, breathing fresh air, living life at a slow pace. He had another jet to catch, a client to see in Singapore, and some people to drop in on in KL. It would be another long week on the road—a succession of conference rooms, hotel beds, restaurant food, room service, overpriced laundry, taxis, headsets, duty-free shops and late nights drinking whisky in shadowy bars while dreaming of home. Hari Bhaiyya had told him, ‘You need to be spending all the time you can with your son now. They don’t stay young forever and it passes very fast.’ Khaneja tried to not think about the boy too much, for he needed to stay focused on the business. Windows closed, lights off, door locked and once again, dear friends, into the elevator, down to the car and back into the sky.

 

The same two seats at the end of the bar in the Radisson Gurgaon. Midnight. Jan de Vries seated next to Shivani, both sipping their strong drinks. Not a lot of talking. Then a buzz from de Vries’s jacket pocket, an SMS. ‘It’s from my office,’ he said. ‘They’ve got me on a 9 a.m. flight to Frankfurt. Guess that means I have about five hours before I need to leave for the airport, right?’

‘Yes,’ Shivani said.

‘Guess we’ll next meet in the Seychelles in the fall? That is, if you’re still up for it.’

‘I might,’ she said. ‘We’ll see.’

‘So, you got anything planned for the next few hours, Shiv? What was the old joke we used to have, a drink …’

‘Don’t say it,’ Shivani interrupted him. ‘Just keep it to yourself.’

 

It was dark and quiet and late in the house. As soon as Ricky opened the door, he inhaled happily, taking in the scents of the place he knew was home. She had left the kitchen light on for him, and a plate of sweets sat on the counter next to the teapot. He knew that in the far corner of the house, his children slept peacefully. These were the tranquil hours when the phone did not ring and the television was silent, the regular business of the family suspended until dawn. He sipped at the cold tea, enjoying the feeling of lightness and familiarity surrounding him. Bless everyone, he thought, all in my home, all in the company, all people in the world.

He tiptoed across the living room, stepping over a half-sized red plastic cricket bat that lay in the middle of the rug. On the wall the faces of his ancestors gazed down at him benevolently. He crept along the hallway and hesitated outside his bedroom door in a moment of overwhelming contentment. The door swung open, without his touching it. It was Shaalu, dressed only in her sheer peach Benarsi silk khaftan. The red light bulb in the nightstand lamp illuminated her silhouette through the filmy cloth. Dim light, the bed thrown open, incense burning, a single candle flickering at the altar, setting the marigold shadows aflutter.

‘Tonight you are my Scheherezade,’ he said, drawing her close. Touching her lips with his own.

‘And I have a story to tell you,’ she whispered, and turned out the red light.

 

Weaving his way through the crowds exiting the arrivals gate, Jaitendra made his way to a car waiting for him outside Terminal 5. It was a black sedan with darkened windows; its driver stood outside and leaned against the boot. When Jaitendra got to him he opened the door smartly, saluted and said, ‘Major.’

Jaitendra nodded, and ducked into the back seat, where Neha sat. She wore an elegant dove grey silk kurta and churidar, and her hair was braided down her back. She wore a pair of traditional tasteful jootis that suited her attire.

‘You certainly took your time,’ she said.

‘I told you it would be at least a couple hours. You’ve been here all along? Had any problem finding the driver?’

‘No. He has been very nice to me. You told him to take me shopping, no?’

‘Correct,’ Jaitendra said. ‘And, that’s a nice outfit you chose.’

‘What happened with your friend the little creep?’

‘I took him through immigration, then walked him all the way to the departure gate, watched him go aboard and sat there waiting until his plane took off.’

‘What you guys saw in him I’ll never understand.’

‘You need to hope for the best from people, Neha,’ Jaitendra said. ‘He was right. Until Talsera, nobody ever did anything for him.’

‘Are we still going to that hill station you talked about? The one above Rishikesh?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s green and wild and isolated. Let’s stay until we can’t stand it any longer, and then go someplace else.’ The car moved gently out of the airport and cruised into the darkness of a long, private road.

‘I thought you said we were flying.’

‘We are,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Hitching a ride to Haridwar with a friend. It’s a military helicopter, a bit noisy, but it’ll be fine. We just have to make one stop before we get going.’

Neha turned toward him. ‘And that is,’ she said.

‘I am taking you home to meet Mother.’

 

Shaitan Vikram got on the jet for Dubai, found his way to his seat and plopped down. But, suddenly, panic overtook him. He’d only been to one other country besides India in his life—the USA—and that had been easier because he’d seen enough American movies and television to get a hang of things, and also because they spoke something that sounded like English. But already culture shock was setting in, with all the signs and magazines on the plane in Arabic, and all around him women in headscarves, and men with beards. Who knew what Brazil would be like? Firstly, they probably spoke Spanish there, a language which was alien to Vikram. Secondly, he didn’t know anybody there, nobody he could call except that girl who wanted to make the video, and she didn’t seem too reliable either suddenly. The plane filled up, and Vikram started to hyperventilate. He unbuttoned his collar, tried to breathe deeply. The passenger across the aisle stared at him. Something wrong? Vikram shook his head no, but he couldn’t get rid of the dread he felt. There was still a lot of good stuff at the Dwarka apartment. Maybe he ought to go over there and see what he could salvage. Maybe sell it all back for cash at Old Man Banarjee’s shop and hide out somewhere else? Hide right under their noses, but stay out of their business. If he didn’t get in Jaitendra’s way, nobody would know anything.

Vikram stood up impulsively, grabbed his new shoulder bag, the only luggage he had. Jaitendra hadn’t even let him pack a suitcase. He’d just bought him the shoulder bag at the airport and told him to buy clothes in Brazil. Vikram ran down the aisle for the exit door and squeezed by the flight attendant. ‘Panic attack, I’ll catch the next flight.’ He then hid in a jetway alcove until the door behind him closed and he could feel the jet bridge ease away from the aircraft. And, when he was sure the plane had gone and the counter had emptied, he slipped back into the terminal and headed for the exit.

 

Cradling a bunch of bananas he had purchased, and wondering when the dhabe wallah would arrive, Vikram pushed open the unlocked door to his flat, slowly and carefully, and he didn’t like what he saw. Three African guys in suits were playing video games on his screen, and three other guys had set up shop elsewhere in his place. His place. They had been drinking beer and smoking bhang. The one in the nicest, shiniest suit looked up at Vikram as if he were some kind of an insect.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ he asked, pulling out an automatic pistol that did not look friendly at all.

‘It’s the kid who was working here,’ one of the other Africans said, in Igbo, a dialect not widely spoken in India, so Vikram had no idea what was said. ‘I saw Jaitendra take him away hours ago.’

‘Oh shit …’ was all Vikram could muster.

‘What are we gonna do with him?’ one of the Africans asked.

‘Fuck if I know,’ Big Boss said. ‘You speak English?’ he asked Vikram.

‘Yes,’ Vikram managed to say.

‘Got any money?’ the Big Boss asked. ‘What’s in the bag? Hand it over. Let’s see.’

Before Shaitan Vikram could do anything more, the door behind him was thrown open with a great crash and suddenly the room was filled with uniformed men carrying automatic weapons, all pointed at Vikram and the Nigerians.

‘Drop your weapons,’ Subinspector Singh said. ‘You are all under …’

He could never finish the sentence. The Nigerians opened fire, and so did the commandos, and the apartment filled with the sound of gun shots, and smoke, and the screams of bullets hitting their targets.

 

The light had grown pastel and dusky, yet it was only 7 a.m., and Priyanka stood outside the apartment building waiting. She remembered what she had learned and what she had decided. She thought about the book she had read about leadership, how the author had talked about taking risks, and seeking humanistic solutions. She had gone out on a limb writing the SMS to Ricky Talsera as she had, but if she was ever going to lead, if ever she was going to have responsibility like Ricky had, then she would need to take some risks. She thought she understood this situation well enough, and so she waited patiently.

At the appropriate moment Pushpa appeared, and searched up and down the lane for the van which came every morning. But instead today she caught sight of Priyanka, a girl she knew from Human Resources, always reliably happy, standing where the van usually stopped.

‘Come on, Pushpa,’ Priyanka said, taking her arm warmly, leading her in the direction of the busy street. ‘I owe you a big apology. This morning we’re going to take a walk together.’

‘I’m not understanding you,’ Pushpa said.

‘I thought you didn’t want to walk to the taxi stop,’ Priyanka said. ‘I thought you were lazy, or your legs hurt, or you wanted more time in the morning to brush your hair. I’m really sorry I believed that. Two days ago I myself walked the route where you said the dog was bothering you.’

By now the women were meandering past the vendors setting up their stalls. Pushpa looked from side to side, clearly uncomfortable. ‘There is a dog,’ she insisted.

‘I know that now,’ Priyanka said. ‘I even met the dog.’

‘You did?’

‘A mean little runt of a hound, the yellow one with half an ear, mangy, pint-sized, who charged me, snarling and barking. The nerve of it!’

‘Yes, that’s the one. Some mornings it chases me …’

‘After you buy parathas to bring to the office,’ Priyanka said.

‘Yes!’ Pushpa gasped. ‘How did you know?’

‘That little monster charged me and went for my bag with its little teeth bared. I had just bought parathas to take with me. What a repulsive dog it was. I figured out what its trick was.’

‘Then why are we walking in its direction?’ Pushpa asked.

‘Because I beat the hell out of it with a stick, and then I gave it a shot from my pepper spray. I don’t think that dog is ever going to bother us again.’

‘Do I have to walk to the taxi stand from now on?’ Pushpa wanted to know.

‘No,’ Priyanka said. ‘I’m making sure you get your home pick-up from now on. Pushpa, you are really good at what you do at the office, and I think we can work together at Talsera in the future. My aim is to join the management team, HR is just a stepping stone for me. I bet if we support each other and put our minds together you and I could be running our own division in a few years. What do you say to that?’

Pushpa looked at her curiously. ‘Pretty ambitious of you,’ she said. ‘What do you recommend I do?’

‘Here,’ said Priyanka, handing her a small canister of pepper spray, showing her how to work it. ‘Let’s walk to the taxi stop together one last time, and see if that dog bothers us. I don’t think it will, but if you see it, get ready to show it who’s the boss. And you can be sure that tomorrow the van will be waiting at your door.’

 

At approximately the same moment, the sun peered its weary head over the horizon and lit up the ochre particulate matter that hung in the Delhi sky. All over the city homes came alive, and out in the shanty towns wood fires were built, and people began their morning ablutions. Vendors brought out their wares to set up their modest stalls and drivers filled their tanks with fuel. A great migration of humanity began along the streets, and the sound of traffic filled the air.

A new day. And new opportunities for everyone. Ajit Hooda stirred his tea and read in the newspaper about the gunshots fired in Dwarka the previous night. Ricky Talsera looked across the pillow at Shaalu, who was still asleep, overwhelmed by her tranquil beauty. Danny Khaneja stared down at the Indian Ocean from 35,000 ft and thought of his wife and son. Jaitendra held hands with Neha as they watched the Gangetic Plain drift by below them, the throbbing music of the helicopter like a symphony surrounding them. Hari Bhaiyya made his rounds of Building 3, checking the doors, looking at the log books. Shivani watched Jan de Vries walk across the rough-paved road to the departure area at IGI and wondered whether she would ever see him again. Down in Gurgaon, in a thousand different PG apartments, boys like Ravi and girls like Adita awoke to eat their humble breakfast, and then find their way to work. This great country, this young generation, headed uncontrollably towards the future. Every day there was only promise. There would be no looking back.

 

THE END

 

 

 

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