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Hack Is Back

LIVING The Skull’s plan becomes clearer, and he reaches out to Danny Khaneja. Jaitendra continues to listen in through his bugs, but the Skull’s ally Mr Hu notices something is afoot. Travel editor Stanley Moss continues with the next four chapters of Hack Is Back, the sequel to The Hacker

 

 

 


Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

Continued from previous page

 

Chapter 16

 

‘Me again,’ Yossi said. He stood in the airspace next to the Delhi Maharajah Palace, where he found himself smashed between two concrete walls, a narrow passageway not inches more than a foot wide. In order to get to it he had found his way to the hotel basement, located a staircase with an exit door which opened inward. Once there he had unwillingly wedged himself into the space, barely able to move right or left.

He didn’t dare go into the garden behind the hotel—all the balconies overlooked it and sound carried. He took no chances standing out in the street in front of the hotel, even at 2 a.m.—didn’t want to risk being seen in case the notoriously insomniac Shlomo went out for a spontaneous walk, especially through the deserted, perhaps treacherous neighbourhood. He couldn’t go up to the roof bar—people usually stayed there late, either guests inhaling expensive mixed drinks, or workers prepping for the next day’s business. And the indoor lounges were a no-no, people always lurking, a good chance he’d be overheard.

So it was the breezeway, if you could call it that, where no windows overlooked from either side, where the sound wouldn’t carry, where he stood with his nose a half an inch from a crumbling concrete wall, holding his phone to his ear in a space which had been used as a dumping ground for discarded consumer plastics, unnamed filth and a convenient urinal for feral dogs. A high fence blocked any exit at the back. At the front some pathetic plants had overgrown the only way in. It was perfect for his phone call. Yossi had used an empty Thums Up bottle to keep the cellar door open.

‘Where are you?’ Jaitendra asked, although he knew exactly. Driver Suresh was parked somewhere out front, invisible, and had already reported the location of the Israeli team. ‘On the roof again?’

‘Nah,’ Yossi said wearily. ‘We’re back at our shitty hotel in East Delhi. Everybody’s gone to sleep, I hope, getting all rested for tomorrow. I guess you’re wondering what’s going down?’

‘Talk,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I’m listening.’

‘I’m counting on you to protect me, man, if this goes pear-shaped. I could be in hot water if it ever gets out I’m telling you stuff. You’re way off base if you think this has anything to do with MasterTaxWallah. The scam’s not about tax prep software or bug bounties. That was just the way to get into your database. The target is you.’

‘Us? You actually think you can score some big money by shutting down a little tiny Delhi company like us?’ Jaitendra looked across at Neha—he had Yossi on the speakerphone. She shrugged her shoulders. Her eyes said: I don’t know what he’s talking about.

‘You don’t get it man. It’s all the companies Talsera works for that are the target. Everybody whose software you designed. All the assholes who have entrusted their data processing to you. Bolivia Telecommunications Network LLC. Moldavina Airways. The Sudan Power Authority. Post and Telecommunications of Cambodia. American Security & Property Protection of Nebraska. Queensland Retail Stores. Air Traffic controllers of the UAE. The whole list of people you have contracts with. This is all about vulnerability discovery. If we can shut down those companies all over the world at the same time, think of the dough we can demand to turn them back on. Are you getting me?’

Khaneja drew his right index finger across his shoulders and Jaitendra nodded. ‘No, I’m not,’ he said, and hit the Mute button. ‘Time to shut these guys down,’ he said. ‘This is out of control.’

‘They are crazy,’ Khaneja said.

‘We’re going back into Talsera tomorrow, and try to plant a surveillance device in Rajan Abraham’s office. You never heard this from me. It was the Skull’s idea from the first. You know who the Skull is?’ Yossi asked. ‘He’s the big brain. He’s the mastermind. Don’t ask me to tell you anything more about him. He’d order me killed in a minute. He plans to ask billions from them all at the same time. A half-trillion dollar shakedown. Planes falling out of the skies, credit cards declined, digital payments freeze, lights going out in whole countries, water filtration plants and alarm systems shut down. All the payoffs in Bitcoins, you getting me?’

Jaitendra turned the speaker back on. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s about all the Bitcoins in circulation,’ he said. ‘You seize that money, something’s got to give. A lot of people going to lose their shirts. You’re gonna have a lot of people seriously angry at you.’

‘Yeah, well that’s the plan. The Skull seems to think he can pull it off. He’s done stuff like this before. I gotta go, man. I’ve told you plenty more than I was supposed to tell anybody—ever. They find out, I’m dead meat. Maybe I’m already dead meat.’

‘Maybe you give me a call tomorrow, tell me how you did.’

‘Maybe,’ Yossi said. ‘I told you the plan. We finish our job, day after tomorrow it’s adios Delhi. You manage to stop this thing, then I’m counting on you to save my ass.’

Yossi inched his way back to the door he’d propped open, his toe hit the bottle which clanked down the concrete steps, and the door slammed shut in his face, capturing him in the passage. ‘Shit!’ he said.

‘What just happened?’ Jaitendra said, but the call was ended. Yossi eyed the overgrown bushes that led to the street a good 20 m away. Now he’d have to side-step his way down to the front and climb out through the bushes, then get back inside the hotel. It was bound to take some time and there were unknowable objects he had to step over. Once he managed that he was going to be dusty and stinking and scratched up at best. He hoped nobody else from the team encountered him, asked him what had happened.

 

By 2 a.m. Gaurav had seriously burned out, but he had helped them into the UltraTel intranet, where Nitin had quickly set up his own profile, masquerading as a legitimate user. Now they began the mechanical process of understanding the code and cloud infrastructure. Now they could silently operate on their own and capture any new passwords that might appear. Adita began to explore the financial systems, and Gaurav leaned back in his chair, exhausted. He rubbed at his eyes and yawned.

‘I never expected to be going to work so quickly,’ he said. ‘Are you sure this really helps?’

‘Gaurav, you have saved the day,’ Adita said. ‘Your work is killer. Nitin and I will probably stay up all night with what we have learned.’

They called Hari Bhayya to the conference room. He and Security Guard no. 18 Ruchi escorted Gaurav through the deserted offices to a side door. Out of sight of the street they hustled him into a taxi with tinted windows. Gaurav hunched down in the back and Security Guard no. 18 Ruchi sat in the front seat, scoping out the road ahead. ‘Where are we going?’ he asked.

‘I’m taking you to an apartment nearby that we reserve for visiting executives,’ she said. ‘You’re going to be living there for a couple days until Danny Khaneja says the coast is clear. Your girlfriend’s there already.’

‘Girlfriend? She was our receptionist, not my girlfriend. We are not having a relationship.’

‘Yet,’ Security Guard no. 18 Ruchi said. ‘She seemed pretty comfortable with sharing the place with you. She’s got her own bedroom, don’t worry. Maybe you’ll find love. We put some clean clothes in the flat and a new toothbrush. Tea is in the kitchen. You can order food in the morning.’

Back in the conference room Nitin began his own wanderings deep within the recesses of UltraTel’s database. Adita had started to discover her own information.

‘Wow,’ she said. ‘They have a lot of bank accounts. Indian and offshore. Here’s a handful at the same branch in the Cayman Islands. Pretty high balances. Really high balances. Really really high balances. Wait: they can’t be holding this much money. Impossible sums.’

‘Good work, Watson,’ Nitin said, looking over at her screen. ‘This is interesting, too. Look what I’m finding. There’s a lot of blockchain code in here. I get the impression they’re developing Bitcoin wallets and mining software, but other stuff I can’t totally understand without more study.’

‘Look here,’ Adita said. ‘Here’s a transaction routed through six countries, lots of zeroes. Hey, they have open paths into a dozen Indian banks. If I’m not mistaken I can look at anybody’s statements, anywhere.’

She watched Nitin at his laptop. He had real talent, which she had not recognized when she had passed him in the halls before they worked together. He was not so superficial as she might have thought, not at all. He could see deep into the informational problems, his mind worked elegantly. And unlike Ravi he was even-tempered and had a happy outlook. Where Ravi was temperamental, Nitin worked calmly and deliberately. She liked the clothes Nitin wore, not the flashy—and often fake—brand names Ravi chose; Nitin liked simple and sensible clothes and he did not wear ugly T-shirts with terrible slogans on them. She realized she had been gazing intently at him and not doing her work, and suddenly he looked up at her, surprised.

‘What is it, Watson?’

‘We’ve been working since midnight, Holmes. It’s close to daybreak outside. Can we take a break?’

Nitin regarded her with obvious affection. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’m getting a bit cross-eyed myself. Why don’t we walk down to the basement canteen and have a cup of tea? There might even be some breakfast being served.’

 

Elsewhere, in the third floor massage room of the Delhi Maharajah Palace, another conversation was about to take place. Earlier, Vikram had heard a short swishing sound near his room door. He had been lying face-up on his bed, hands behind his head, ankles crossed, staring at the ceiling, trying to reconcile the next day of his life. It had been more confusing lately working with the Israelis, to say the least. Unlike in previous times, he could not quite determine the direction the wind blew. They had treated him like a super-spy in an awesome movie, spirited him away from home, changed his face, thrown a lot of interesting assignments at him, brought him back incognito in a private jet, and now—suddenly at the last minute—they were radically moving the goalpost. He had done what they asked, fireproofed the Gurgaon office, bugged Talsera’s headquarters, and now they wanted him to go in a second time and leave a fucking listening device in Rajan Abraham’s office. Well, that was gutsy—maybe he should do it. That would show Shivani and all her friends who the smartest person around was. But the swish of something being slipped under his room door caught his attention, he rolled off the bed, stood up and saw a sheet of hotel memo pad on the floor in front of the door. Suspiciously he picked it up and read:

It could only be Riva, and he wasn’t going to miss out on a chance to see her. He doubted she had booked a nocturnal couple’s massage just to entertain him, not at 3 a.m. Vikram pulled on his sandals and started for the massage room, checked out the hall—empty—before he went, then crept down the cavernous stairwell to the lower floor, slinked along the marble-tiled hallway, tiptoed to the room whose sign read Lotus Spa, quietly slipped the door open. There she was, seated, legs dangling, on the massage table at the centre of the room. She looked foxy and killer to Vikram, who gently closed the door behind him. Zebra-striped short skirt, shiny black blouse, short-waisted sweater top, cute pink Converse low-tops. Gave him that funny, slightly amused smile of hers. Wearing very suggestive floral perfume.

‘What’s up?’ he asked. Riva patted the spot to her right.

‘Sit down, Paul,’ she said. ‘We need to talk.’

‘My name’s Vikram,’ Vikram said. ‘Paul is an imaginary person who lives in another space and time.’ He sat next to her on the massage table.

‘Okay, Vikram,’ she said. ‘I guess you’ve earned the right to hear your true name. We have a dangerous assignment tomorrow, I’m not going to bullshit you. They want us to do something super difficult and risky at the last minute, something they hadn’t asked for. We don’t succeed at it, well, you can imagine what could happen to us.’ She reached out and took Vikram’s left hand. ‘So let’s come to some agreements. I checked out this room, it’s not bugged, I don’t have my phone, neither do you. We’re surrounded by solid walls. Nobody can hear us talking. We’re going to need a back-up getaway plan, and I have the feeling if things don’t go all that well Shlomo will be short an extra seat on the jet tomorrow for one of us, whether we plant that bug or not.’

‘He will what?’ Vikram said. ‘You mean …?’

‘You’re a nice kid under all that bluster,’ Riva said. ‘I’ve kinda got used to you. You’re a little weird, but I think there’s a gentleman living inside.’

‘Oh,’ Vikram said. ‘You’re talking about that thing with your tattoo.’

‘I’m talking about other stuff. How you hold the door for me, how you listen to me, the way you look at me like a little puppy dog. Those other guys, they think I’m only here to get them chai and dress pretty. Like I’m some kind of paramilitary eye candy. You see me for the person I am, at least I think you do.’

‘Well, you’re awfully nice,’ Vikram admitted. ‘And extremely good-looking. And you’ve been very nice to me. And you wear killer outfits. And I really like that perfume you’re wearing today.’

Riva released his hand. ‘Great,’ she said. ‘But listen: I’d like to see you get out of this safely. First we find the way inside Talsera. You’re sure you know where this guy’s office is? You do? If it’s locked I can get the door open, no problem. I can create a diversion if you need more time.’

‘I won’t,’ Vikram said. ‘I can plant a bug in a flash.’

‘That’s great,’ Riva said. ‘Then all we need to do after that is get the hell out safely. I figure if we keep our cool we can just walk out the way we came in. You confident you know the building plan if we need a different escape route? Good. So what happens after that?’

‘Yossi drives us to the airstrip and we say Salaam Bombay.’

‘In the best of all possible worlds,’ Riva said. ‘But what about if we get caught? What if we find ourselves in handcuffs? They call the police and somebody has to get us out of jail?’

‘It’s India,’ Vikram said. ‘Everybody can be bought. Yossi-sir has got to know some policeman, military guy, government minister.’

‘Unless it’s cheaper to kill us. Remember we’re here illegally. Not so messy, no lawyers, less handling. Or say we succeed at it, but there’s trouble after. Say we can’t meet up with Yossi and Shlomo outside the office and we find ourselves wandering alone on the darkened back streets of Delhi.’ ‘We get on a plane,’ Vikram said. ‘To Rio de Janeiro, or a place where nobody knows our names or fake names or faces. We start over. We make a new life, like in the movies. You get a job in a restaurant and I sell pakoras on the street.’

Riva smiled. ‘You’re really sweet, Vikram. Let’s walk through the contingencies for tomorrow. And then discuss a couple possible escape routes.’

‘For me, or you or us?’ Vikram asked.

‘I don’t rule out any options,’ Riva said. ‘You never know. There’s better than an even chance you and I are going to have to say goodbye tomorrow.’

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

Riva laughed. ‘Nah,’ she said. ‘Maybe it’s time you reconsider your future. Tel Aviv wasn’t doing it for you. You’re mixed up with dangerous people. It might be healthy for you to think about more realistic options than running away with me.’

‘But I am liking you,’ Vikram said. ‘We can escape Yossi and Shlomo-sirs. Start a new life together. Get married. You could have a baby.’

Riva got up off the table and stood in front of him, all business. ‘Get real, Vikram,’ she said. ‘None of that is gonna happen. Tomorrow we plant the bug in Rajan Abraham’s office. We escape, let the big dogs do their thing. It’ll probably be ugly in one way or another. Frankly, I don’t want to be around when the bad stuff happens.’

‘Neither do I,’ Vikram said. ‘Think about my offer. And we’ll see how we do tomorrow.’

 

 

Chapter 17

 

At exactly 4 a.m. Danny Khaneja sat at his desk in Building 6, eyes fixed on the illuminated screen, scanning the work that Nitin and Adita had done. Thanks to the boy Gaurav from the UltraTel office they’d wormed their way into the secure databases and he could see his adversary’s every move. He could read their private messages, banking activity, he could observe their surveillance of Talsera, he could examine their Blockchain-based projects. What audacious ambition, he thought. These people play in the really big leagues. Such incredible arrogance. One could only admire the scale of their scheming. He pondered how to approach the next day’s activity. Jaitendra was in favour of letting them plant the bug in Rajan Abraham’s office, allow them to leave the building, then follow them to their next destination, wherever it was. With the bug in place Talsera could feed them all the misinformation they wanted, really mess them up. But let them get away? Once they’d made it inside the building wouldn’t they become Talsera’s prisoners? Didn’t it make more sense to contain them, hold them to leverage any eventuality? Rather than turn them over to the cops.

Rattle-rattle went the phone on his desk, buzzing. ‘Who’s trying me at 4 a.m.?’ Khaneja thought. Looked at the screen, Unknown Caller. So he hit the green button and listened.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ the voice said without a greeting. It was a deep basso voice, with one of those unattributable accents, not Slavic, not Middle Eastern, definitely not Asian, an accent that didn’t know where it came from. ‘No wasting time. I’m busy, you’re busy, both of us have more important things to do. So here’s the offer. A million bucks for you and each of your partners, deposited into numbered Cayman bank accounts, untraceable, 30 seconds after you say yes.’

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ Khaneja said. ‘Calling me at this hour. Everybody’s gone to bed. Don’t you sleep?’

‘Then two million each,’ the Skull said. ‘You and your partners just look the other way, act like you don’t know what’s happening, bingo, you get the money. Sounds like a sweet deal to me.’

‘And just what is happening that we look the other way?’

‘Please don’t play dumb with me. You’ve built a nice little business, a lot of people respect you.’

‘And you’re asking me to betray the trust of all my employees and clients,’ Khaneja thought.

‘You’ve put in quite a clever system of firewalls,’ the Skull went on. ‘Admirable. But of course I’ve got a guy who can deal with that.’

‘Yes,’ thought Khaneja. ‘He used to be my genius. And I don’t know how you got Vikram under your spell. But we can see every move of your game now. Keep talking.’

‘You know, it was never supposed to go this way. Our product was intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism,’ the Skull said, chuckling. ‘But then, as is often the case within nimble organizations like ours, the greater possibilities for exploitation suddenly become apparent. It was pretty clear we could make a lot of money once all that code spread out over so many internal networks, I don’t have to tell you. It quickly turned into a profitable industry selling private keys to decrypt all the hard disks we’d successfully attacked. Got me thinking, why focus on the small stuff, a couple hundred thousand bucks a pop? Why not go for the big fish? We were already inside Talsera’s guts, got a look at the calibre of people you guys were servicing. Why not go fishing top-down?’

‘Why not?’ Khaneja thought. ‘I can think of a lot of reasons.’

‘So I said to myself, ‘Vladdy, five million or more from one hundred well-lubricated companies spread out globally is an infinitely easier and more lucrative goal than extracting a measly 200k from a thousand panicky users, many of them unable to find the dough in the first place.’ Get all the payments in Bitcoins, nobody knows who they’re paying, laugh all the way to the bank. It was, as you say, like the shooting of fish in a barrel.’

‘To extend on the fish metaphor,’ Khaneja thought. ‘The usual finder’s fee is five per cent,’ he said. ‘If my math is correct, you’re offering substantially less than that. Wouldn’t twenty-five million to each of us be more like it? All the groundwork has been done for you. Under this scenario, you pay us off, waltz in, extort the clients, and still pocket most of the cash.’

‘What a clever young man you are,’ the Skull said. ‘And very quick to compute. What about if I say five million to you and each of your partners? You like that number any better? Think about it. You could put both your kids through Harvard with that kind of money and still have plenty left over to buy your wife a big diamond ring and a house in Porto.’

‘You are incredibly convincing,’ Khaneja said. ‘Not to mention persuasive. But the offer doesn’t yet move me. Whatever arrangement you and I reach, I then must carry to my partners.’

‘Ten each,’ the Skull said. ‘You think your partners could walk away from an offer like that?’

‘I can’t speak for them,’ Khaneja said. ‘But I’m not satisfied with your great generosity of spirit. You’ll have to do better.’

‘As a favour to me I’ll ask you to communicate that number to your partners and see what they say.’

‘I won’t do that,’ Khaneja said. ‘They’ll only ask me what I think and I’ll tell them I think it’s still a lousy offer.’

‘I advise you not to tell them that,’ the Skull said. ‘You could make it a lot easier on everyone by going along with the plan.’

‘Then on behalf of myself and my partners I must respectfully decline your kind outreach.’

‘Twenty each,’ the Skull said. ‘Let’s cut the bullshit. You want to do business or not? My last offer. Twenty each.’

‘While we are most appreciative of your interest, the answer remains a resolute no,’ Khaneja said. ‘You can call me back if you have any other ideas for us.’

‘I will have some other ideas, son. But they won’t involve money.’

 

At 7 a.m. Shaalu Talsera opened her eyes to the golden light passing through diffuse curtains and smiled to herself. She knew she had all of five minutes before she needed to rouse the kids, get them started for the day. She could hear the amah in the kitchen puttering around, she could smell something delicious being cooked for their breakfast. Out in the driveway she was certain that Baba had the kids’ bicycles wiped down, wheels tightened, mounted to the rack on the back of the SUV, ready for the morning drive to Gurgaon. The previous night, before going to sleep, she had laid out the kids’ Talsera T-shirts, helmets, biking gear. They were looking forward to riding today with their parents, surrounded by other Talsera families. Raahgiri had turned into a major event for the community, the company and its workers, but also for the media. Thousands of marchers, performers and cyclists took to the streets. Many corporations had joined in sponsorship. Thanks to its popularity even the politicians had been motivated to approve the installation of bike lanes and then show up in support, posing for pictures to be seen in the newspapers and on the TV stations.

From the pleasant warmth of her bed Shaalu remembered the succession of text messages she’d received the night before. Ricky always texted her during the day, a ritual they enjoyed since the early days of their marriage. Short messages of simple affection and support. Last night the first had come just before he was scheduled to leave for home.

 

 

Shaalu knew what that meant. She knew that it had to be important, that the situation developing at Talsera was serious. But she understood, because only rarely did nights like this occur. It was different than the old days, the days before the children, years ago when the boys stayed at their office late, hunched over their desks, hustling business or writing code. Last night she had joined the children at table, shared dinner with them, and then put them to sleep. After the house got quiet she received another text.

 

 

Shaalu knew what that meant, better than Ricky did. It meant he wasn’t able to tear himself away yet, and most probably it would go long beyond midnight. She suspected it was one of those rare nights when he wouldn’t come home at all, drinking coffee with Khaneja, running simulations with Rajan, cajoling Jaitendra and his nerds to come up with new angles on whatever problem needed solving. Shaalu loved her husband for his dedication, and she knew that the company to which he gave his name was the second most important thing in his life after his family. She respected him for that, and she understood how much time and sweat he had invested to grow it, how it supported their life now, and what it represented to his professional colleagues. He had become one of the prominent young founders in Indian tech. It was lucky that he still loved his work. She was glad it held his interest. Whatever was going on at the office had to be important.

Shaalu turned the bed down, sent the amah home, dimmed the lights, set a single place setting at the dining table in the unlikely case he did get home, just in case he was hungry. She lit some incense at her altar, asked for blessings on everyone. As she had expected a message came into her phone.

 

 

She smiled knowingly. It wouldn’t be midnight—it might be later, or not at all, she wouldn’t see her husband until the morning, when he would don his biking gear at the office, grab his helmet, and venture out to the starting point. He’d expect to see her there with the kids all kitted out. They’d ride as a family into the waves of cyclists, accompanied by Talsera people, everyone charged up and optimistic, confident they could make Gurgaon a better place.

Another message arrived at one minute after midnight.

 

 

This was the signal Shaalu had known all along she would receive. Later messages would arrive during the nocturnal hours, so she set her mobile phone to silent, put it on the nightstand, slipped into bed, fell fast asleep. Twice her phone buzzed, but Shaalu slept.

 

 

At 7 a.m. sharp the special ring which indicated Ricky’s phone also brought Shaalu from her sleepy reverie.

‘What’s happening, hotshot?’ she asked.

‘Where to begin?’ Ricky said. ‘We’ve got a handle on the bad guys. We know what they’re up to, where they are. It’s pretty weird.’

‘Are you still riding this morning?’

‘Can’t disappoint the kids. But there’s going to be an attempt made on Rajan’s office. The bad guys want to plant a bug.’

‘Attempt? How can they get through security? Hari Bhayya would catch them in a flash.’

‘Aha,’ Ricky said. ‘Jaitendra’s going to let them. He's setting some kind of trap. Listen, my love, I need to go. It’s heating up here. You’ll still meet me in front at 10?’

‘You did say Jaitendra is letting them in. I heard you correctly?’

‘You know how those guys are,’ Ricky said. ‘They get a plan in their heads …’

‘And the adventure begins.’ Shaalu said. ‘I’ll keep the kids away from your office at ten. Try and stay out of trouble, darling.’

 

 

Chapter 18

 

‘I need to check in with my father,’ Nitin said, rising from the table where he and Adita had been sitting quietly. They had come downstairs to the empty canteen where they sat across from each other sipping tea. It had been a long night, both were exhilarated from their work, at the same time weary, at the same time—unknown to each other—thinking the same thoughts.

Nitin walked to the TT room and dialled his father. The old man picked up at once. ‘Yes, beta?’ he asked.

‘I’m just checking in,’ Nitin said. ‘Sorry I couldn’t get home last night.’

‘You called me and told me as much, remember?’ his father said. ‘I didn’t expect you. Did you manage to get a nap?’

‘No,’ Nitin answered. ‘But we found a lot of interesting things. Today is going to be a wild day.’

‘I know you quite well,’ Nitin’s father said. ‘I hear your tone of voice. What is wrong, my son? Is it the work?’

‘The work is fine,’ Nitin said. ‘It is the girl I am working with. I am having ideas about her that do not concern our job.’

‘Aha,’ said his father. ‘About time. Are you able to tell me any of these thoughts of yours? Is she a decent girl?’

‘Father, how do you know if you are falling in love with someone?’

‘First tell me about the girl. Does she wear make-up and short skirts and listen to terrible music?’

‘None of that,’ Nitin said. ‘She wears saris and dupatta and she is from a small village to the north. She reminds me in some ways of mother.’

‘Good,’ said Nitin’s father. ‘That is a good start. But something troubles you about her.’

‘Not about her, Father. She is fine. Smart, educated, polite and quite beautiful. But she is already engaged to be married.’

‘Is this girl flirting with you?’

‘I don’t think so. She is quite devoted to our work. I admire her so much. But I keep thinking about marrying her, what it would be like. My mind wanders from our company project.’

‘You’ve never said anything like this to me before, Nitin. Do you wish this girl to break her engagement? Would she even do such a thing?’

‘Father, I do not know.’

‘First you had better find out how she feels about you. Then decide what you want to do. Just don’t let it get in the way of your job. Ricky Talsera-ji vested a lot of responsibility in you last year, and you cannot let him down.’

‘I know that. I’ve left her alone in the canteen, and we need to get back to work. I’ll call you later, Father. And thank you for listening to me.’

Nitin found his way back to the canteen, which was still empty, rows of unoccupied tables and Adita seated at the end of one, just where he had left her. She had her mobile in hand, and looked up at him.

‘I’m texting with Ravi,’ she said. ‘He’s freaking out that I didn’t go home to my PG apartment last night. I think he has my flatmates spying on me, feeding him information. He’s gotten very weird since we started planning our wedding. I postponed it yesterday and now he’s in a big panic. He’s like a different person than the one I used to know.’ Adita looked back to the phone screen. ‘Now he’s asking me when we think our project will be completed.’

‘That’s not a question you can easily answer, Watson,’ Nitin said. ‘We could be done today, we could be done in a week. It’s work, so what’s his problem?’

‘Maybe he’s reverting to his true nature. I never saw it before, and now I’m starting to get nervous. You probably don’t want to hear all this. We should get back to UltraTel.’

‘Not so fast,’ Nitin said. ‘You’ve postponed your wedding. Are you breaking the engagement?’

Adita looked at him closely. She looked at her mobile screen. Ravi was madly texting some nonsense. She didn’t say anything.

‘Are you?’ Nitin asked.

‘Why are you so interested, Holmes?’

‘Because I’m wondering if I stand a chance with you.’

Adita closed the message window. Ravi could wait. ‘He takes me to movies and holds my hand,’ she said. ‘He tries to touch my … chest, rubs his hand against it. We go to a restaurant and he orders for both of us, he doesn’t even ask me what I want. He watches other girls in salsa class, and he doesn’t know I see him doing it. I hate the T-shirts he wears.’ She looked down at the phone. One message from Ravi marked Urgent. She decided not to read it. ‘He’s not even honest about kissing me. He tries and then turns away. And he’s stopped telling me he loves me. He just criticizes me and he acts like it’s his right. I think he needs a more cooperative girl.’

‘You’ve had enough,’ Nitin said. ‘I think you need someone you can be honest with.’

‘Can I be honest with you?’

‘I’d insist on it, Watson.’

‘Would you want to be with me, Holmes? Even after what I’ve just told you? Maybe I’m difficult. Maybe Ravi is the right guy. Maybe he sees the truth. Maybe the problem is me.’

‘You don’t believe that,’ Nitin said. ‘I never met anyone I wanted to be with as much as you. You say yes, I’ll take you home to meet my Dad. You’ll like him. He’s totally on my side. I’ll tell him I’m in love with you, and he’ll help us. Last year when Shivani-madam fired me he came to the office immediately and talked to Ricky Talsera-ji.’

‘Did you just say you loved me?’ Adita asked.

‘I think I did,’ Nitin said. ‘I definitely said I wanted to be with you.’

‘Are you making me an indecent proposal?’ she asked.

‘I definitely am,’ Nitin said. ‘Once this project is over I think we ought to take a holiday together, just you and me. Some beach or some forest or mountain valley.’

‘And share a room?’

‘Share a room and bathtub.’

‘You are very bold,’ Adita said. Nitin reached across the table and took her hand.

‘Share a room and a bathtub and a bed,’ he said. ‘And a life.’

Adita looked down at her phone, highlighted the unread message from Ravi, hit the Delete key, the message disappeared. She hit the New Message button and wrote

 

 

Adita hit the Send button. She looked at Nitin. ‘I would very much like to meet your father,’ she said.

 

Ravi could not believe the message he was reading. He read it twice, three times, four times. ‘I knew it,’ he thought. ‘She has gone completely bonkers.’ Then he worried: what will I tell Mother and Father? He realized that he would need to have an explanation ready—word would get around Talsera quickly when people heard the news. He wondered what Adita would say, who she would tell first, and how it would reflect on him when it was learned that she had dumped him. He would need to say that she had gone insane with all the complications before the wedding, and that her nutcase of a father had driven her crazy. Yes, that sounded good. That she became impossible, and that her father was a lot of the problem. He would tell people that this wasn’t unexpected to him, a meddling father-in-law in the making. That unless things had got better he was about to call the whole thing off. Only she had beat him to it.

 

 

He texted her. When she did not reply instantly he wrote:

 


And then he took a battered Post-It note out of his wallet. Written on the yellow sheet was the email and mobile phone number which Mona had slipped him one afternoon following salsa class. He had carried it in his wallet for months now. It was time to make use of it.

 

Mr Hu sat at his desk overlooking the fertile expanse of the Pearl River Delta, rich with shiny skyscrapers, factories, criss-crossed by new highways. He remembered the days when it had all been farmland leading down to the miles of oyster beds. Such prosperity now, and like it or not the world had changed around him. The many offices were populated by young people who lived their lives staring at mobile devices, who conducted their business over an invisible and weightless commodity called the internet. They did not enjoy Go or even cards any more, he thought, every game played out on tiny screens with tinny sound effects and infantile music. What would they do without a recharger cord? Mr Hu spent a lot of his time monitoring what happened on devices like those. He had a talented team of R&D people at work full time building algorithms that made watching masses of humans more intelligible. Once upon a time the keyword had been software; today it was predictive. Mr Hu prided himself on the fact that his algorithms gave him the ability to see into the future.

‘So you understand why I called you,’ Mr Hu said to the Skull. ‘We seem to have uncovered some extraordinary groupings, like those you asked me to keep an eye out for. We’ve been watching the chatter and traffic around UltraTel.’

‘Get to the point,’ the Skull said. ‘Time is money, one I have less of than the other. Guess which.’

‘You know how we work,’ Mr Hu said. ‘Mr Chu and I see a lot of common terminology surface across networks, it raises red flags. Tells us a lot. Who’s been talking to who about what, how long they hang around, who’s interested in who else. It may sound simple, but we’re crunching huge batches of information. Suddenly stuff starts to appear. The algorithms can’t lie.’

The Skull drummed his fingers on his desktop impatiently. ‘You have something to tell me or not?’ he asked. ‘I heard your sales pitch, I hired you guys. Spill the beans.’

‘We can go about our work two ways,’ Mr Hu said patiently. ‘We can watch your activity closely, which we already do. But we can also monitor for mentions of your name, your products and companies across a much larger universe.’

The Skull groaned involuntarily.

‘Unusual appearances interest us. Mr Chu focuses on strange encrypted traffic. I am more concerned with the intricacies of high-volume communications.’

The Skull looked at his very expensive and extremely thin IWC limited edition Millennial Chronograph which had set him back over a hundred grand. The sweeping second hand fluidly transited the circumference of the extra-large watch dial without a trace of interruption. ‘Your time is up,’ he said irritably. ‘If you can’t tell me in ten words or less, send me an email.’

‘What I am trying to tell you is that some very unexpected quarters are interested in what you are doing, people we have not seen before. People in India.’

The Skull sat up in his chair. ‘Talk,’ he said. ‘Who in India? Where in India?’

Mr Hu smiled to himself: he now sensed he had gained the advantage. ‘An unusual number of messages sent at or around the military cantonment in New Delhi, between soldiers and other parties.’

‘What other parties?’ the Skull said. ‘I’m not liking the sound of this.’

‘I’m getting to that,’ Mr Hu said. ‘Searches about UltraTel, Meshuga Group, your products, you. A lot of it leads back to a little software company in Gurgaon named Talsera. I can see you’re watching them, but are you aware they’re watching you? One name keeps turning up.’

‘And that name is …?’

‘Jaitendra. The name mean anything to you? War hero, brave officer, shady operator? Lots of mentions, keystrokes, messages, connections, chatter. The guy is circling around you, his numbers aren’t going down. Mr Chu and I advise you look into it.’

The Skull knew who Jaitendra was. He didn’t have to be told. ‘Never heard of him,’ he said.

 

‘This is kinda sudden notice,’ Shlomo said. He was standing in his room in the Delhi Maharajah Palace, staring out the window. It was 8 a.m. and the Greater Kailash neighbourhood was coming to life in front of him. People moved among the stalls, tuk-tuks lurched along between vehicles. He and Yossi were waiting for Riva and Vikram to appear, but they hadn’t shown up yet.

‘Yes,’ said the Skull. ‘Just make sure he meets with an unfortunate accident. A fall into a drainage ditch, steps in front of a metro train, disembowelled in a dark alley, I really don’t care. But make it happen today. Weren’t there some Libyans you liked working with?’

‘But what about the other stuff we’ve got to do?’ Shlomo said. ‘This is a new priority? Today’s already a big day.’ He wondered whether he should share the order with his cohorts. He decided to keep his mouth shut.

‘You get my drift,’ the Skull said. ‘Put Yossi on.’

Shlomo handed the phone to Yossi, who regarded him quizzically. ‘Yes, sir?’ Yossi said.

‘I’ve got a little assignment for you. Just between you and me, you don’t mention it to your comrades there in New Delhi. This needs to be taken care of before you head home. I’m sure you have some local people you can rely on. Maybe those Nigerians you used before, they were effective. Open up your address book and line up some dependable talent, got me? You know that Talsera guy, name of Danny Khaneja? He needs to be put out of business, permanently. I think a team of three ought to do it, the usual fee, take him out of circulation, get him out of our way. He seems to be well connected, so use top talent, no room for error here. Just an assignment from me to you, deal with it after you plant that camera today, handle it before you leave town, am I clear?’

‘That’s a big request,’ Yossi said. ‘Is there something else I should know?’

‘What part didn’t you understand?’ the Skull said. ‘Do I need to repeat myself?’

‘No sir,’ Yossi said. ‘I’ll take care of it.’

‘Then put Shlomo back on.’ Yossi handed over the phone.

‘Shlomo here.’

‘Yossi’s got a little side job to do for me. You stay out of it. He may need to duck away for an hour. While he’s handling it why don’t you take care of that little thing I just asked you for? Activate Plan B, if you get my meaning. Get your work done at Talsera this morning, handle the other business, then you can ride the jet home.’

Shlomo noticed the Skull hadn’t said anything about Riva or Vikram. He looked over at Yossi, who sported a kind of hangdog expression. Something was afoot.

 

 

Chapter 19

 

Seconds later a light tap at the room door announced that Riva and Vikram had arrived. The four stood in the centre of room 203 regarding each other awkwardly. An unspoken tension pervaded the chamber, finally broken by Shlomo’s grab for his jacket.

‘I’m going out for a few minutes,’ he said. ‘You guys better prepare for this morning’s action. Where’s the car?’

‘I’ve got it stashed in a parking a couple blocks away,’ Yossi said. ‘A new white SUV. I can call for it when we’re ready.’

‘Well, have it out front in twenty minutes,’ Shlomo said. ‘And make sure all the right equipment gets packed.’

‘Roger that,’ Yossi said.

Shlomo headed out the door abruptly without even a farewell, the door slammed, but the tension remained.

‘Now tell me what’s up,’ Riva said. ‘Usually you’re the one sneaking away. I get the feeling you’re keeping something from us. Now that he’s gone you can speak freely.’

‘We just got off the phone with the boss,’ Yossi stammered. ‘But I don’t know everything about his conversation. Shlomo talked to him first, he didn’t say much after, kept things private, that was strange. Whatever it was, he did not look happy after. Not in the least. Then he passed me the phone.’

Riva said, ‘Whenever the boss calls, people get assignments, then they usually get up tight.’

‘I have no idea what the boss asked him for,’ Yossi insisted. ‘But I know what he asked me to do, and for Shlomo it can’t be any better. I get the feeling everything’s imploding.’

‘What does that mean?’ Vikram asked.

‘You saw Shlomo’s face,’ Riva said. ‘Easy enough to tell that something heavy was on his mind.’

‘I’m gonna share my part with you, I really shouldn’t, but I have a bad feeling about the way this is coming down. The Boss just gave me an order to take Danny Khaneja out of circulation. I’m supposed to call those Nigerian guys, the ones that shot up your apartment in Dwarka a year ago. Get them on the case. Stop Danny Khaneja from digging any deeper.’

‘Do you mean kidnap him?’ Vikram asked.

‘I think he means something a bit more permanent,’ Riva said. ‘The Boss never messes around. You have no idea what he wanted Shlomo to do?’

Yossi shook his head. ‘Could be anything …’

Anything?’ Vikram said in a strained falsetto. ‘Like an explosive planted under a car, shoot up another apartment, or something worse?’

‘Calm down,’ Riva said. ‘I think it’s time we all came to an understanding. First we need to figure out what Shlomo’s been assigned to do. And we need to agree we’re not gonna kill Danny Khaneja so fast. We do that, a lot of bad luck could follow.’

‘You’re right. This is getting way too serious,’ Yossi said. ‘Let’s not kill anyone for the moment, not without a good reason.’

‘I’m not killing anybody!’ Vikram said.

‘Shut up,’ Yossi said. ‘We do what we’re supposed to do this morning, install that camera and then figure out how to disappear.’

‘That is a very good plan, Yossi-sir,’ Vikram said. ‘I am liking the sound of that plan. I would very much like to disappear. I would very much like to quit this job and never see any of you again, except you, Riva. You I would like to see again.’

‘So we agree?’ Yossi said. ‘We plant the device in Rajan Abraham’s office this morning, but we don’t kill anybody? That sounds right?’ Riva and Vikram nodded. ‘Then we disappear and nobody ever sees us again?’ Riva and Vikram looked at each other, didn’t say anything, nodded. ‘And we find out what Shlomo’s supposed to be doing.’

‘And how is that accomplished?’ Riva asked. ‘We corner him, pull out a gun and make him tell us?’

‘Oh, that would never work,’ Vikram said helpfully.

‘Fine, Mr Genius,’ Yossi said. ‘You have a better idea? Let’s hear it.’

‘Well, we could always plant a bug on Shlomo, track him and listen in on his conversations.’

Yossi and Riva exchanged glances. ‘We could?’ Riva asked.

‘The kid’s right. Of course we can,’ Yossi said. ‘I have extra devices in the duffel and extra earpieces. We just have to get a bug on Shlomo. Who’s gonna do it?’

Michael Jackson got a strange look on his face. ‘I can,’ he said. ‘Shlomo’s an asshole, he’d never suspect it and nothing would give me greater pleasure. When he’s not looking I’ll hide a microphone in the new SUV to begin with. And then I’ll put something small and voice-activated into the pocket of his bag.’

‘My hero,’ Riva said. ‘I’ll wear the earbud and keep everybody posted on what he’s saying.’

 

‘Holmes,’ Adita said, ‘I think I have found something. I piggybacked into one of those UltraTel Cayman bank accounts and signed myself up as a new user. It worked, Holmes, it actually worked. Now I can do anything I want, request old records, follow transactions.’

‘Brilliant! What about transferring funds?’ Nitin asked. ‘What if we wanted to stop a transfer?’

‘Unless I’m reading this wrong, I think we ought to be able to do both those things.’

‘Watson, you amaze me. That account only, or can you get into other ones?’

‘I ought to be able to worm my way into any linked accounts,’ she said. ‘Yes, look here. Now I have two open.’

Nitin peered at her screen. ‘So you do,’ he said. ‘Can you move funds between the accounts?’

Adita made a few keystrokes. ‘I’ve got the fields open,’ she told him. ‘It says I can.’

‘So try it,’ Nitin said, pointing. ‘Move one cent from this one over to this one.’ Adita filled in the boxes and hit the button marked Execute Transfer. Instantaneously the single cent disappeared from one and appeared in the second account balance. ‘Transfer confirmed’ came up on her screen.

‘Excellent!’ Nitin exclaimed. ‘Can you send a penny to an outside account?’

‘I suppose,’ Adita said. ‘I’ll send a cent into an AmFAR account I know.’ It took her a few seconds longer. ‘Went through!’ she said.

Nitin looked at the screen thoughtfully, bit his lower lip, thought some more. ‘Can you send AmFAR a donation and get a confirmation email back to a dummy address?’

‘Will you set one up?’ she asked.

‘Give me five minutes,’ Nitin said. ‘I’ll make it an address that can’t be tracked, for a fake Mr Ramaswamy. Then you attach it to a donation. If we receive an acknowledgement, then we know the money went through.’

Five minutes later they had their answer: a €10 contribution was received from M. Ramaswamy, with thanks. ‘You think we can get in trouble for this?’

‘Who’s going to bust us? Ten euros doesn’t even show up on the balance sheet. No, I think we are OK. But I have an idea, Watson, just to see if it can be done. Let’s see if we can move a bigger sum from one account to the other. I mean, it’s not stealing if you take it out of one pocket and put it into another in the same pair of trousers, right? They’re both UltraTel accounts. Find me a little one with a small balance. We’ll draw from the big one and fatten the other. Then we'll know if it works.’

‘Yes,’ Adita said. ‘If they find out we can always quietly put it back.’

‘Exactly,’ Nitin said.

‘OK, this one has under ten thousand euros in it. How much do you want to move?’

‘Just for fun, let’s try a million,’ Nitin said. ‘We could just move a million euros over. See what happens. A round number, looks like a bookkeeping error, maybe it goes through.’

Adita got a mischievous expression on her face. ‘I’m game,’ she said. ‘Then we just put it back.’

‘I could definitely fall in love with a guy who has this much ambition,’ she thought.

 

Somewhat in a panic, Shlomo stalked out into the street outside the Delhi Maharajah Palace, but unlike during the nocturnal hours he wasn’t able to stand in the middle of the lane in near-silence. Loud morning traffic zoomed by, labourers elbowed past and a flow of tuk-tuks interrupted his attempt at conversation. Finally he took refuge in a doorway, where he tried a telephone number which he had not called for over a year. The number belonged to a Libyan operative named Mohammed, whose surveillance services Shlomo had used earlier at what he considered to be bargain prices. But he knew that Mohammed and his cell of co-workers—all refugees from Gaddafi’s secret services—performed more serious contracts if asked. While they were known to be effective and inexpensive, their reputation was for messy work. But the Skull had assigned him a specific task, which was to quickly rid the world of Jaitendra, and Shlomo knew he would be out of Delhi within 24 hours, and he did not feel the necessity to buy for quality, only expedience. The Libyans, he knew, acted fast and liked cash. Whatever the consequences, his Indian sojourn would soon be over, with little need for clean-up on his side. Leave it to the local authorities, he decided.

But Mohammed was not so easily located. The man who answered the call first claimed not to know any Mohammed. When Shlomo insisted that he be told it was ‘Shlomo from Tripoli’ the man put him on hold, then came back on and told him Mohammed no longer worked at this phone number. Mustafa had taken his place. Shlomo then insisted he put Mustafa on the line. Mustafa was not available, the man replied. He would be back later. Could Mustafa reach Shlomo on this number? Shlomo said he didn’t have time for callbacks—who else was there that he could talk to? The man said Mahmoud was available. Put him on, Shlomo said. Mahmoud would call him right back, the man said, and the line went dead.

Thirty seconds, Shlomo thought. If this asshole doesn’t call back in thirty seconds, then over to Plan B, some very expensive Albanian guys he knew who did a good job, but always added some complication or other, inevitably involving surcharges for equipment or transport, effectively doubling the original cost quoted. But the phone rang quickly, and Shlomo found himself talking to Mahmoud, a heavily accented guy who wanted €10,000 in new bills in advance of any assignment at their first meeting, which would have to be tomorrow in a location outside town which Shlomo knew to be totally not-secure. It couldn’t be tomorrow, Shlomo said, had to be immediately, today at noon in Gurgaon. Sorry, Mahmoud told him, it wasn’t going to happen that way. Good luck and goodbye. Click.

With less than twenty minutes now before the SUV was due to arrive in front of the hotel, Shlomo decided he had better take matters into his own hands. He’d get his team down to Gurgaon, plant the transmitter in Rajan Abraham’s office, and while it was getting done he’d locate Jaitendra and handle that mess once and for all, on his own. Shlomo had been a manager for some time now and his tradecraft skills were rusty, but he figured he’d take no risks on this one, shoot first, handle the consequences later.

 

‘Holmes, I think we have a problem.’

‘Your ex-fiancé has been texting you again?’

‘He has, relentlessly, but that’s not our problem.’

Our problem,’ Nitin said. ‘How can a problem have surfaced? I was only gone to my meeting with Rajan Abraham for about 15 minutes.’

Adita looked at her screen. ‘Remember that just before he called you and you walked away we had moved a million euros into that other account?’

Nitin sat down next to her and checked out her screen. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember. I don’t see the problem on either of these accounts you have open here.’

‘When you walked away I took a little breather, maybe five minutes. I walked down to the canteen, got a tea. When I came back to my desk the balance on the smaller account had changed, about €70,000 more than before had suddenly appeared. When I looked closer at the account it wasn’t just any old account. It was some crazy hybrid Cayman interest-bearing fund. They’d automatically credited a bunch of extra money based on the new balance we created.’

‘What did you do?’ he asked.

‘I immediately put the million back in the first account, of course. If anybody was looking, it would appear to be some weird banking glitch, hopefully nobody would notice. But the smaller account still had the extra seventy k in it. I didn’t want to raise any red flags.’

‘Good thinking,’ Nitin said. ‘So you sent AmFAR the extra money?’

‘I couldn’t do that,’ Adita said. ‘I thought that would get us into even bigger trouble. So I moved it into my personal HDFC account, seven deposits of ten K each. I figured with all the business they do every day the money had a better chance of getting lost among the millions of daily transactions they process. Hide in a crowd. And I definitely wasn’t going to call anybody’s attention to it.’

‘Interesting,’ Nitin said. ‘Well, Watson, I say we get back to our other investigations and deal with what happens later. Try not to attract any notice. We can’t be worrying about this. If nobody reacts, then we’ll figure out what to do with that deposit tonight. For all we know it was a bank error. If they ask, we play dumb. We don’t know anything. If nobody catches it, we’re still in the clear.’

 

‘You know that long stretch of green grass and plantings on the road to IGI Terminal 3?’ Shlomo asked.

‘Of course I do,’ Yossi said.

‘They have some temporary mounds of dirt out there, somebody stands between them you’re invisible to the road. You call your pal Jaitendra, set up a meeting there at 10 a.m. Except it won’t be you he meets, mate, it will be me.’

‘You’re going to meet Jaitendra alone out there? To do what?’

‘That’s between me, Jaitendra and the Boss,’ Shlomo said. ‘Just set up the meet. I’ll deal with Jaitendra. You guys are going to be down at Talsera planting that video camera anyway. See if you can set up a meeting near their office with Danny Khaneja, 11 o’clock. The Boss has an offer for him, too. If Khaneja says yes, I’ll try and make a deal with him.’

‘And then we all leave town?’

‘Smart guy,’ Shlomo said. ‘After that off we go.’

 

‘You’re telling me that Yossi guy wants to meet you on a hidden spot on the entry road to IGI? Alone? You trust him?’ Neha said. She was at the driver’s seat of their new BMW. She was dressed in a gold-laced sari and big round Chanel shades.

‘Not in the slightest,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Says it’s urgent, says nobody will bother us. Sounds totally fishy to me.’

‘So then you’re going?’

‘Of course I am,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Gotta see what he’s got up his sleeve.’

‘Husband, I am not letting you go alone,’ Neha said. ‘These guys are bad news. What if they kidnap you?’

‘That’s not going to happen,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I’ve been in worse situations. I’ll get Suresh to drive me, back me up. If I see any kind of threat, I know what to do. Besides, I’ve been dealing with Yossi for years. He thinks he’s tough, but he’s actually a cream puff in stressful situations like these.’

‘You’re not going alone,’ Neha said. ‘Not out to some dangerous open space at IGI with an evil ex-IDF and Mossad dude.’

‘I intend to keep both myself and you out of harm’s way. Let me do this alone, I am telling you it is under control.’

Neha nodded reluctantly. ‘If you get killed,’ she said, ‘I’ll never speak to you again.’

 

The white SUV crept slowly westward across Delhi, navigating flyovers, past strange overbuilt neighbourhoods, walled areas, ragged settlements, muddy canals, finally taking a switchback on the Northern Access Road. Shlomo piloted the vehicle under a flyover and then cruised south along half-deserted streets in the direction of Talsera’s highrise. He brought the SUV to a halt on a long stretch and said, ‘OK, everybody out. You know where the building is, take a tuk-tuk if you want, but you do the last stretch on your own. I’ve got my own appointment nearby, and I’ll meet you guys back here at eleven. At which time you better tell me everything’s gone right.’

Yossi, who sat in the passenger seat, twisted around right and looked at Riva and Vikram. ‘Everybody ready?’ he said.

‘Shlomo sir,’ Vikram said, ‘what if we finish early?’

‘Then you find yourself a roti dhaba and send me a text.’

‘But, sir,’ Vikram persisted, ‘what if we are late?’

Shlomo twisted around left in his seat. ‘Then you pray that I find you and send me a fucking text of your location.’ He turned abruptly back to face forward, and didn’t see Vikram stash a listening device in the deep pocket behind the driver’s seat. Vikram nodded at Riva, then Yossi, and got a smug smile on his face. ‘And you take off that Talsera hat,’ Shlomo said to Riva, still facing forward. ‘It looks stupid.’

‘It was supposed to be a disguise,’ she said. ‘I like it. It’s cool. A lovely shade of blue, goes with my outfit.’

‘Leave it in the car,’ Shlomo said. ‘You’re supposed to be a decoy, not fit in.’

Riva took off the cap and threw it onto the dashboard, where unbeknownst to them it continued to transmit their conversation to the team at Talsera. Vikram took the opportunity to place a second bug in Shlomo’s shoulder bag, which sat on the floor between the forward seats. It too overheard their every word.

 

‘Are you hearing all this?’ Khaneja asked, as the bug concealed in the Talsera cap continued its transmission. ‘Our four soldiers are shadowing their van. They’re on their way to our building to plant something in Rajan’s office.’

‘And I’m going to let them,’ Jaitendra said over his phone, since he had been listening remotely. ‘Lure them inside, watch what they do, then we’ve got them. Hari Bhayya’s ready for them.’

‘Where are you exactly?’ Khaneja asked.

‘Out at IGI,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I have a date with destiny.’

Rajan Abraham, who had been patched into the call, broke in. ‘And I’m supposed to lay low, right?’

‘You are,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You stay there and watch Ricky’s back. Besides, your pal from the other side might call. Then you’ll have to negotiate more terms for us.’

‘You guys have all the fun,’ Abraham said. ‘All I get to do is sit in my office and talk to people on the phone.’

‘Doesn’t sound half-bad to me,’ Khaneja said. ‘You’d prefer to run around town chasing a band of idiotic Israelis and try to find out what kind of trouble they are causing for us? You want my job? You can have it.’

‘Just saying,’ Rajat Abraham said. ‘As it turns out, I got a note about an hour ago that the bad guy wants to call me this morning. I had the kids do a linguistic analysis of transcripts of all the past calls. Of course I recorded them. I think I’ve been talking directly to the Skull all along. He’s just been scrambling his voice. Wonder what he wants today. I fully intend to keep him talking, so he doesn’t make any sudden moves.’

 

To be concluded

 

 

 

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