LIVING Shlomo is armed and awaits Jaitendra, while Vikram gets ready to plant his camera, all against the backdrop of Raahgiri Day. We bring you the conclusion of travel editor Stanley Moss’s Hack Is Back, the sequel to his acclaimed novel The Hacker
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
Riva, Yossi and Vikram stood on the paved walkway in the morning air and watched the white SUV drift off along the centre divider, reach an opening 100 m down, brake, hang a fast U-turn and speed back past them on the other side of the street, racing in the direction of IGI. A pleasant cool temperature merged with the bitter taste of the air and a vague haze pervaded the skyline. It would be a good morning for biking. Overhead a SpiceJet A320 took to the air, made a slow ascent above them and quickly disappeared into the low-hanging pollution.
Once he was sure he was out of their sight Shlomo piloted the SUV to a stretch of trees, came to a halt in a covered turnout area, and set the emergency flashers going. He took out his satellite phone from his backpack and hit a number only he knew by memory. The signal connected him to a phone 1,807 km away, and the familiar voice of the Skull answered.
‘Good news already I’m hoping?’ the Skull said.
‘Nothing yet,’ Shlomo said. ‘I’m doing this myself, not using any local talent, I told you, I’m about to wipe that sonofabitch Jaitendra off the face of the earth. Give me an hour. I’ll let you know when the deed is done.’
‘Before you do anything rash, do find out how much he knows, dear boy. Is he on to our big plan, does he have any idea what we’re really up to? And are you in possession of a weapon?’
‘Of course I am,’ Shlomo said. ‘He can’t argue with a gun.’
‘Your confidence does not yet inspire me.’
‘Like I told you, I’m doing it myself,’ Shlomo said. ‘If that’s any indication. I’ve done this kind of thing before. The Indian guy doesn’t scare me.’
‘Right,’ the Skull muttered. ‘Cowboys and Indians.’
Riva tapped at the earpiece nervously. ‘I hear him perfectly,’ she said. ‘Shlomo’s been on the phone with the boss, who we know is a really scary dude. Even his voice creeps me out. Now he’s gonna go try and murder Jaitendra. He’s even carrying a gun.’
‘Can’t be,’ Yossi said. ‘That can’t be right. Still not gonna be a fair fight. Jaitendra has eyes on the back of his head. Unless Shlomo is better than I think he is, which he isn’t. He’s rusty, old, fat, all bluster. No contest. That Jaitendra guy is lethal.’
Vikram stared at them. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re letting those two go at each other and that you think Jaitendra-sir is going to win the fight?’
‘Time for you to calm down and listen,’ Yossi said. ‘Patience. Let’s just look patiently at the state of affairs, let it evolve, let the other side show us what they’re doing. We don’t have to make a move.’
A tuk-tuk growled by them, but nobody hailed it. For the moment the street returned to deserted and they stayed where they were.
‘They’re talking again,’ Riva said, placing her fingertip on the earbud. ‘Something to do with a man named de Vries, I know that name, the bigwig Belgian guy who bought a controlling interest in Talsera. Wait a minute.’ Yossi and Vikram said nothing, Riva’s eyes drifted away as she listened to what was being said. ‘Apparently they’re threatening de Vries, telling him to pressure our people in Delhi to back off and pay extortion money,’ she said. ‘The Belgian guy’s got a newborn kid, and they’re mentioning his family might have trouble if he doesn’t cooperate. He just hung up. What a mean guy the boss is.’
After he hung up on the phone call the first thing Jan de Vries did was call Jaitendra. It had been feeding time for the newborn in Monaco, and a call had come in on his private line, the number only privileged people knew, and he was one hundred per cent certain he’d never given it to the caller. He was especially irritated at being interrupted during his front row seat watching Shivani breastfeed the kid. The little rat was voracious, heading straight for her dark nipple, tightly closing its little eyes as it sucked away deep in concentration. At Shivani’s side Aunty-ji yammered in her mysterious dialect—de Vries still had no idea what she was going on about. But the caller had been rather insistent that they speak immediately, and described issues of data security where an obscenely large payment was supposed to be tendered right now or all of Talsera’s systems would freeze. De Vries said this was the first he had heard of it, he wasn’t the right person to call on this, asked for a number where he could get back to the caller, asked him whether this was so very urgent, at which point the caller turned up the heat. Did de Vries understand how serious this was, what was at stake, how much money they stood to lose? Irreparable damage to their reputation? Just calm down, sir, de Vries had said. He had been listening closely to the man’s accent, and thought it sounded eastern European. How’s that new baby of yours, the caller suddenly asked. Doing OK? What—couple days old? Yeah, kids are wonderful, be a shame if something happened to it, and its exotic young Hindu mother. Do you have a name? De Vries asked the caller. No I don’t have a fucking name, the caller said. You can call me your worst nightmare. That’s my fucking name. Calm down, sir, de Vries had said. I am calm, the guy had screamed, are you getting what I’m saying? You, your company, your wife, your kid, you’re all gonna have trouble like you’ve never seen before. Get me? The only thing I get, de Vries had said, was that some person using a voice scrambling device calls me up at the last minute while I’ve got more important things to do, starts issuing threats about stuff I don’t know about, and isn’t allowing any room for me to check out the assertions. What do you say we make an appointment for a follow-up call? I’m obviously not communicating, the caller had said—what are you, deaf? This is a fucking crisis for you. Your business is about to go down the toilet, does that make it any clearer? Sir, de Vries had said, I think you need to seek some professional help, or you need medication. You don’t just call up and start issuing threats. You better discuss this with your people in New Delhi, the caller screamed. I’ll phone you back at 1 p.m. for your answer. Before de Vries could get in another word the line went dead. At which point he called Jaitendra.
Jaitendra, seated at an umbrella table at Nehru Place Market watching Neha inhale a chappati, listened to the account. De Vries had routinely recorded every word of it. Now he piped it over to Jaitendra, who listened to it twice and sent it along to Rajan Abraham, who sent a link to Khaneja and Ricky Talsera. A flurry of encrypted messages soon followed.
I wonder what would happen, Adita thought, if I just moved a bigger amount from here to here. Just to see what happens. Nitin had left the cubicle again, gone off to check some code with another team. She shivered as she regarded the screen—they kept the offices colder than she liked, so she wrapped her red sweater tighter and continued. It seemed simple enough, just fill in the fields, she typed a one followed by nine zeros, hit the button marked Transfer, and the funds disappeared. She hit Undo. Nothing happened. Uh-oh. Looked at History. But the funds didn’t show up on either end, not here, not in the account where she’d directed the money. Had they been liquidated to some shadow account? All that remained was a flashing cursor with nothing after it. I’ll give it five minutes to show up, she thought. There may be a lag in posting. Instead, she moved on to another area which interested her, a different account altogether, linked to a small regional bank in Punjab.
It had been very impolite of the airport planners to place two surveillance cameras overlooking the zone, of which Shlomo was unaware. One was located 100 m to the west, mounted inconspicuously at the corner atop a large cargo facility that said Interindia Logistics, a huge vaulted warehouse which housed a clandestine depot for a fleet of vehicles used by an invisible branch of the Indian intelligence services. This camera was intended to be continually monitored by a team of bored soldiers who spent the better part of their shifts watching porn, taking cigarette breaks, or talking to their jealous girlfriends. At the moment nobody was attending those particular screens and would not for at least another hour. Later, when an undercover investigation of the incident was conducted, it would be discovered that every moment had been captured in sharp focus on a digital recording, but neither seen nor reported as it happened.
The second camera was mounted atop a 30 m high light pole which overlooked the outbound side of the exit lane. It was trained obliquely on the grassy space between the mounds. It was occasionally monitored by a technician assigned to watch 100 different small screens in a control room near the airport’s water filtration plant two miles distant; he had been trained to recognize the telltale signs which might suggest the need to summon the overworked counterterrorism unit lodged at a post about 10 km away on the northern side of the airport, and who would have a minimum 20-minute drive at top speed on an interior perimeter road to reach the space, in the event that there was no delay. Which he eventually did. As usual today there was a lot of disagreement over who would go, which vehicles would be used, who was signing off on the detail, who would lead, when the team could leave. Unfortunately for Shlomo, the current technician, a distant member of the Rathore clan from Jodhpur, had his attention focused on the outbound turnout lane when the SUV stopped with its emergency flashers going. The technician zoomed in on the vehicle, trying to see what accessories the owner had ordered since he coveted that very model. He was surprised to see a man leap from the driver side and rush toward foliage at the end of the lawn, which he duly notated on his daily report sheet. The man appeared to be carrying a gun in his right hand.
It was Shlomo who had arrived early. After he left his SUV at the outbound turnout, its emergency lights flashing, he ran through the gap and surveyed the open ground, hills on both sides and dense foliage planted at each end as he had expected. He checked his watch, knew Jaitendra was due in less than two minutes and the dude would be on time. He dove into the bushes and concealed himself as well as he could, checked his weapon, waited while the Rathore clansman watched in fascination.
From the direction of the airport entry an extremely cool BMW automobile swerved into an inbound-facing turnout—the exact mirror of where Shlomo had parked but on the other side—and jolted to a halt. The clansman saw Jaitendra exit the passenger side, zoomed in on him, and tracked him walking into the centre space between the two mounds at the opposite end, tracked and taped him as he walked down the centre of the green space and approached the bushes where Shlomo lay concealed. He watched the hidden guy rise up, the gun definitely in his hand. While he could not hear the words exchanged, it was apparent from the gesticulating of both parties that a conversation was taking place.
‘Nice and easy, Jaitendra,’ Shlomo said. ‘Don’t try any funny stuff.’ At that exact moment an Airbus 380 thundered overhead, obscuring the words Shlomo next shouted. Jaitendra pointed to his ears.
‘Couldn’t hear you,’ he said, shaking his head side to side. ‘Say again!’
‘I said, don’t try any funny stuff like you did in Mombasa. This time I’m in charge.’ He faced Jaitendra, brandishing his pistol at his side. ‘This time it’s me holding the gun.’
‘Why’d you want to meet me here and what’s with the gun?’
‘Stop playing dumb,’ Shlomo said. ‘You Talsera people are getting in the way of a big deal. That’s not acceptable. Out here it’s just me and you, the O.K. Corral, our final showdown.’
‘Still the dreamer,’ Jaitendra said. ‘The bad guys always think big, then lose. May take some time, but you’re gonna forfeit this one. Haven’t you figured that out yet?’
‘And what exactly does "this one" mean? What improbable scheme do you think we have up our sleeves?’
‘Just tell me what you want to know, and I’ll decide if it’s what I want to tell you.’
‘Please,’ Shlomo said. ‘I find it offensive the way you behave. We have the power to trample your pitiful little business into dust, wipe you off the face of the earth like you never existed. Our ambition is bigger than you think.’
‘Perhaps, then, you’ll answer a few questions for me, before we get down to business.’
Shlomo regarded him curiously. ‘I thought I was the one asking the questions,’ he said. ‘Go ahead. Ask away. It’s not gonna matter any more.’
‘You guys smuggled Vikram back to India on a private jet. You changed his face but you couldn’t disguise his voice or his walk. You were going to use Vikram as the Michael Jackson of Trojan Horses.’
‘Tell me something I don’t already know,’ Shlomo said. ‘That’s not a question. Anything else you don’t want to ask?’
‘We were on to you guys from the first day you showed up in Old Delhi,’ Jaitendra said.
‘That’s not a fucking question!’ Shlomo shouted. Another jet screamed overhead.
‘That day at Jama Masjid. Vikram got away from you quickly. How’d you find him so fast? You tracked him down in minutes. That’s almost impossible. You didn’t have enough people on your team to stay on top of him, unless I’m missing somebody. Even our guy couldn’t follow him and he’s the best. He never loses anybody. So how’d you find Vikram so fast?’
Shlomo grinned. ‘Maybe we implanted a chip on your genius when he got his face changed,’ he said. ‘He’s been wearing a bug between his shoulders all along. He never figured it out. You guys ever think of that? I guess we’re not so dumb.’
Jaitendra nodded. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Did you know he nipped into a phone store while he went missing for those 5 minutes? Our guy figured that one out. You catch Vikram switch his SIM card on the stolen portable he was carrying?’
‘Not that it matters,’ Shlomo said. ‘But I guess we overlooked that one. You have any idea where this is all leading, or are you clueless like I think you are? You haven’t got any idea of the big story.’
‘I know it isn’t over a lousy million euros.’
‘Chump change,’ Shlomo said. ‘The Skull has bigger visions. Why don’t you put your hands up where I can see them. Yeah, like that. Come a few steps closer to me, that’s fine right there, now hold still.’
‘This was never about rinky-dink phone apps, was it?’ Jaitendra asked.
‘Think bigger,’ Shlomo said. ‘Much bigger. That was the way into your business. Whether you pay us or not we’re gonna shut down all your clients, get me? Like in a James Bond movie. Global meltdown. The boss plans to hold the whole technologized world hostage. Starting with your client list.’
‘And everybody is supposed to pay the ransom in Bitcoin. Very clever,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Someday you’ll have to tell me the real story.’
Riva stormed out of the foyer of Building 3, marched across the road and plopped down in a chair directly across from Yossi.
‘It’s the wrong building,’ she said. ‘He moved office.’
‘Then our genius has failed us,’ Yossi said, nodding in Michael Jackson’s direction. Vikram was seated at the other end of the dhaba pretending he did not know them. Yossi caught his glance and glared.
‘It took the guard some time to find out where he’d moved to …’
‘Where’s that?’ Yossi asked.
‘Building 6, about a half a kilometre away. I told him I had an urgent job interview with Rajan Abraham and his secretary had given me this building as his location, must have made a mistake. The guard at first seemed confused, then he called somebody and told me the new office. So how do you recommend we get over there inconspicuously?’
Yossi nodded at Vikram, get the hell over here fast, and Vikram slinked over and dragged a red plastic seat to the tiny table, plopped down in front of them.
‘He moved,’ Riva said. ‘To Building 6.’
‘We’re gonna need bikes,’ Yossi said. ‘For God’s sakes, it’s Raahgiri day. There’s a bunch of bikes over on that rack there. You guys choose your rides, I’ll pick any lock that needs to be opened. Let’s just get over there and take care of biz.’
‘That’s where he used to be,’ Vikram said. But nobody listened to him.
‘Sir, they have stolen three bicycles from in front of Building 3 and are riding to Building 6 now. I hope you do not mind, we have taken four very nice new electric bicycles from the Talsera rack to use ourselves. We will return them.’
‘That’s fine, Sergeant Khan. You stay with them,’ Khaneja said. ‘It’s like a bad comedy. First they went to the wrong office. Hari Bhayya had to step in and tell the guard the right address, who then told the Israeli woman. We’ll be waiting for them at Building 6.’
‘Sir, I have been unable to reach Jaitendra-sir. He was on his way to IGI. With your permission I will leave message for him that we are going to Building 6.’
‘Make sure nothing bad happens to those three on their way to Building 6. If you see them get into any trouble, put yourself in-between. Your job is to escort them safely—and secretly. They can’t know you’re protecting them.’
Sergeant Khan and his team, now divided up, pedalled into the wave of bicycles and discreetly surrounded Yossi, Riva and Vikram, giving them plenty of space to ride. Everyone looked forward, nobody looked at anybody else. It was Raahgiri day and everyone was headed to the starting point. In front of Building 6.
At first, Security Guard No. 31 Sumithra was not having any of it.
‘You told me, sir, the special guests would arrive at 10 a.m. It is now 10.45 a.m., sir, and they are still not here. You instructed me to tell them the biometric scan was under repair, which is a lie, and simply let them walk through the gate, which is against the rules. In my training I was told that everyone must be scanned, no exceptions, even your good self.’
‘I told you also not to stare at the man who looks like Michael Jackson,’ Khaneja said. ‘He is very self-conscious. He is here on a very important interview with Rajan Abraham. We need to welcome him. You must do everything in your power to make him feel comfortable. And do not upset the woman with him. Do you understand?’
Khaneja finally retreated to the dimly lit security office hidden off the main lobby, where he sat in front of a futuristic array of glowing screens and from the comfort of a cushioned armchair he watched the live show at the Building 6 entrance. Technicians hovered about wordlessly, shifting views, adjusting camera angles, whispering among themselves. They left Khaneja alone while they worked.
He could see the street outside, he could see the tiny guardhouse, he could see the lobby from multiple perspectives. He knew it was the ideal moment for the action to occur: the buildings were mostly empty, people out at the Raahgiri. Deserted hallways, fewer folks to witness whatever would occur. Then from an exterior cam he saw Vikram—unmistakable body and moves but a different face, then Riva and Yossi ride up to the entrance. They politely stowed their bikes on the communal rack. Yossi wandered across the street and unobtrusively plopped himself down at the tea wallah, last table to the south. The four soldiers arrived next—obviously they had discreetly shielded the Israelis from harm on the way over. They kept their distance, but stayed close to their blue Talsera electric bikes. She and Vikram stopped at the white-slatted guardhouse, spent little time at the window with the guard. Fascinated, transfixed by the screens, Khaneja watched them proceed to the security point where Security Guard No. 31 Sumithra awaited them. She obviously had understood his words. She made a brief statement to them which they appeared to accept. She barely looked up at Vikram. Must have told him where Rajan Abraham’s office was, second floor built off the back corner at the left, the only office that had skylights, he’d recognize it when he got there. Madam could wait on the couches across the lobby, the guard said. She pointed hospitably to the other side of the lobby. Riva stepped forward and gave Vikram a kiss on the cheek. Said, ‘Good luck, honey,’ winked at him, walked across the vaulted space and sat down. Took out her mobile, knee-foot-swinging, totally natural, acted like she belonged there in the first place. Security Guard No. 31 Sumithra swung open the gate, gestured come in, and Vikram strolled through the barrier. Inside the Security Room the technician turned up the ambient sounds.
‘That guy looks just like Michael Jackson, but he’s dead, isn’t he? We can hear them better now that they’re in the building. Outside way too much background noise. Every camera is hooked up to capture audio. I’ll just track the sound as we follow him.’
Rajan Abraham ducked into the Security Room and took the chair next to Khaneja.
‘Dude,’ Khaneja said, not looking away from the screens.
‘My Nervous,’ Abraham replied. ‘What’s shakin?’
‘Vikram’s on his way to your office. Look there. The girl is waiting in the lobby, on one of those couches, and my go-to guy Yossi is over at the dhaba across the street, being covered by Jaitendra’s soldier boys. So now I guess we will learn what finally happens.’
‘Are you absolutely certain you don’t want me to go up to my office now, catch him red-handed, and we get to the bottom of everything in one sweep?’
‘Do you get the feeling that girl wanted to go in with him?’ Khaneja asked suddenly. ‘She’s really fidgety. She looked kind of disappointed when they told her she could wait over there, but she wasn’t about to make a scene. Maybe we should let her in, too. Two birds with one stone, you know.’
‘And how do we do that?’ Abraham said.
‘She doesn’t know either you or me. One of us could go down there into the lobby, walk right up to her and invite her in, tell her she can sit in the waiting area outside your office.’
‘I don’t have a waiting area,’ Abraham said.
‘She doesn’t know that,’ Khaneja said. ‘We just direct her to the door. Surprise them, then take them both into custody. Jaitendra ought to be back soon. Let him handle them once he gets here.’
‘Let me at least talk to her,’ Abraham said. ‘You guys have all the fun.’ Khaneja nodded, and Rajan Abraham left the room.
Riva looked up and saw a very nerdy kind of middle-aged man had silently appeared in front of her. He said, ‘We thought you might like to sit in the waiting area outside where your friend’s meeting is. There’s nobody in the building. Raahgiri day. Would you mind wearing a Talsera hat?’ He handed her a blue cap. When this occurred, Riva had no doubts that they had been discovered. But all she could do was play along, so play along she did.
She allowed Abraham to take her through the barrier—no biometric scan needed—and reach the foot of the staircase. ‘It’s up there,’ he said, pointing vaguely. ‘An easy walk, down a couple long halls to the back corner of the building, left hand side. We’ll be there in two minutes.’
At that exact moment Rajan Abraham’s mobile began to buzz. He reached in his pocket, looked down at the screen and read a message from Khaneja:
Back at the green space between the mounds on the entrance highway to IGI, Shlomo had stepped away from the bushes, gun in hand, and stood facing Jaitendra. He was about to complete the odd interrogation, see if there was anything more he could learn and then blast the annoying Jaitendra to kingdom come once and for all. From behind he thought he heard a weird she-wolf wailing, and even before he could respond or turn toward it he felt a human hop onto his shoulders, wrap muscular legs around his neck and in a swift move take him down to the ground, twisting over him as he fell. He landed with a grunt, winded and dazed. But the assailant wasn’t done: in his last moments of consciousness Shlomo felt a punch to his face, nearly passed out, barely felt the knee to his groin, doubled over into the fetal position and tried to control his breathing, which was scant. His attacker delivered an excruciating kick to his side. ‘You didn’t have to do that,’ Shlomo grunted, his cheek to the lawn, his vision blurred, blades of grass an inch away from his eyeball, still not seeing who had attacked him so viciously.
‘Nobody, but nobody, pulls a gun on my husband, and gets away with it,’ Neha said. ‘Nobody.’ And she kicked him again for good measure.
Bright daylight turned to rosy darkness and Shlomo drifted into delirious unconsciousness. The technician assigned to watch 100 different small screens in a control room near the airport’s water filtration plant saw the whole thing. As Neha and Jaitendra were running from the lawn he grabbed for his phone to alert his team.
Riva found Rajan Abraham’s office without any trouble, and remembered they might have to pick some locks in-between them and the office. But that didn’t seem to be necessary now. Things had got so strange so fast that she wondered who was in charge here. It was like they knew what she and Vikram were supposed to do and were letting them do it, making it easy for them. Security nil? It didn’t seem right.
Abraham’s office door was closed, but she could see at the top of the wall panelling a row of ceiling-level windows which allowed light into the hallway, even though you couldn’t look into the office. But as she quietly moved the handle downward she determined that the door was unlocked, so she opened it a crack, saw Vikram in back of a huge, messy desk, then went in and noiselessly closed the door behind her.
‘Nice office,’ she said, checking out the skylit space. ‘Really nice. Even with all the stacked papers and bookshelves. He even has a refrigerator. Wow. Filled with Cokes and Fantas. I like the greenhouse-style windows overlooking that garden. You’d never know it was there from the outside. What a contrast. It’s pretty bleak in the cubicle offices. How’d the installation go, baby?’
Vikram smiled, his Michael Jackson grimace. ‘Easy-peasy,’ he said. ‘I’m all done. Got in without a problem, somebody left the door totally unlocked, probably the cleaning crew, got my camera installed, so off we go. Ready to get the hell out of here once and for all?’
‘This is way too easy,’ Riva said. ‘Suspicious. Don’t you see? They let us through CIA-grade security, gave me a free hat, directed us to the exact location, left Abraham’s office unlocked, and nobody bothered you when you broke in and installed a hidden camera. It’s way fishy.’
Vikram looked at her curiously. ‘You really think so?’
Riva smiled a benevolent smile. ‘You are so beautifully naïve,’ she said. ‘I love that about you. It’s kind of cute how clueless you are sometimes. These guys are playing us like a violin. They know we’re here and they’re probably watching us every step of the way.’
‘I hate to interrupt this compelling train of thought,’ Vikram said, ‘but can we continue the conversation later, once we’re on the jet back to our desert home in paradise? I have to set the device to transmit. We still have to find our way back to that landing strip.’
‘A hundred bucks says we don’t get out of here at all.’
‘Deal,’ Vikram laughed. ‘Easiest hundred I am ever going to make.’
Somebody opened the office door. Khaneja. Looked in.
‘Hi, guys,’ he said casually. ‘You must be getting hungry, up so early, running around town all morning. It’s getting near lunchtime. Why don’t we order some sandwiches, get comfortable in a conference room, socialize a little.’ Vikram stared, aghast, open-mouthed. Hari Bhayya leaned in behind Danny Khaneja. Uh-oh.
‘I win,’ Riva said. ‘And now you owe me.’
Perfect, thought Vikram, so this is what it has come down to once again. Like, the French had a word for it: voo-jah-day, right? I’ve been here before. A Talsera conference room on the second floor, only this time I’m in Building 6, Hari outside the door, backed up by two security dudes. Noon, a bunch of delusional assholes riding around Gurgaon on bicycles out on the streets. Sitting across from Khaneja-ji this time, and at my side the utterly bodacious Riva, who I probably won’t ever see again since I’ll either be dead or locked up in some rotten Indian prison.
Riva had been pretty cooperative when Khaneja was questioning her. She obviously had been trained to answer, told him a lot of the details he already knew, or which weren’t going to get them in any more trouble. Described her role as Vikram’s companion, handler and minder, their movements around Delhi. What they were doing at the Gurgaon office, and the exit plan with Shlomo and Yossi after they’d planted the camera in Abraham’s office.
Vikram took another bite of his tuna fish sandwich and a hard swallow off his room-temperature Coke. He’d been daydreaming while Khaneja was talking for the last minute, in erotic dreams about the girl in Rio de Janeiro, how close he had come to escaping the Israelis and hooking up with her.
Khaneja never lost his cool, stayed at the same casual and easygoing tone as he interrogated them. Made Vikram tell the whole story, of how he’d hidden in the jetway instead of taking the flight to Rio a year earlier, how he took the metro and snuck back to his flat in Dwarka to see what equipment and data he could salvage, how the Nigerian gang had broken in and shot up the whole place fighting with another gang, he didn’t know who the other guys were, how he’d been rescued by Yossi and flown to Tel Aviv, where they’d given him a luxury apartment and pumped him for information about Talsera, made him write code for some pretty ruthless phone apps, then surgically changed his face and shipped him back to India last week on a private jet to spy on Talsera some more. How they’d made him reveal everything he knew about Talsera’s clients and how their technology worked. That the Skull was planning something really really big, and it wasn’t about malware on smartphones. Khaneja seemed to know most of this already, but he took Vikram through it step-by-step, didn’t seem to miss out on any details. Then he surprised Vikram. Told him he didn’t want to see any more bloodshed. Told him that maybe it was better for everybody that he go back to the Israelis, business as usual, and in the future if something really big came up, let us know. Khaneja implied that they had the situation under control. Maybe Vikram could be of more use one day farther along the road, if you get my meaning. He had some ideas, and when he started talking about them Vikram kind of zoned off into his own thoughts, remembering the girl in Rio, Lucia was her name. He’d even sent her a text message with his new SIM card. Remembering Riva’s breasts, comparing them to the Brazilian girl’s. But then something which Khaneja said floated by him and returned his attention to the conversation.
‘So we need to make it look like you succeeded in putting the device into Rajan Abraham’s office,’ Khaneja said. ‘It’s already been placed, our tech team has switched it on, it’s transmitting now, we’ll let them watch the empty office for a while, then we’ll discover the device during a routine scan of the place for stray electronics. We do that regularly. Won’t look odd.’
It was Riva who caught the meaning, even before Vikram. ‘Are you saying we double-cross the Skull?’ she asked. ‘Because that could be really dangerous.’
‘You have a better idea?’ Khaneja wanted to know. ‘We could lock you guys up and lose everything. Or we could send you back and hope for the best.’
The extremely new and beautiful BMW automobile containing Neha and Jaitendra pulled up at the curb in front of the chai wallah across from Talsera Building 6. Neha was at the wheel. She leaned across, kissed her husband passionately and said, ‘Don’t be mad. I just couldn’t stand to see that guy with an itchy trigger finger holding a weapon on you, getting ready to kill you.’
‘I’m not mad,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You were about thirty seconds too early. I was about to try and get more information from him. I had the feeling he wanted to talk some more. But what the heck—he was overweight and rusty and probably wanted to get back at me because of how things turned out in Mombasa.’
‘What happened there?’
‘Can I tell you later? It was embarrassing for them, and he never forgave me. But look: I need to collect Yossi and meet up with Khaneja inside. They’re already holding Vikram and Riva.’
‘Ha ha,’ Neha said. ‘That little creep. He just can’t win against you guys, you are too big and smart and strong for him. And husband, don’t flirt with the Israeli girl, either.’
Jaitendra popped the door lock and got out. He wasted no time, and walked straight to Yossi, who had been pretending not to see him. As if by silent command the four soldiers who had been watching him approached slowly and surrounded them.
‘I knew he couldn’t kill you,’ Yossi said. ‘Did you exterminate him? You’re like the Indian John Wick.’
‘I didn’t touch him. Let’s just say he’s in serious condition in a private hospital in Greater Kalish under the care of our devoted friend Dr Narayan.’
‘Already in hospital? How did ambulance get to him so fast?’
Jaitendra said, ‘I called one before I went to IGI. Knew it would take time. I figured one of us would need it, so they were there waiting at the entrance to the airport. Pays to be careful. I guess you and I have to go inside now, meet the others and make a plan.’
The plan crafted for their escape from Building 6 was a simple one. Yossi, Riva and Vikram would walk straight out the front door unescorted. Security would be instructed to ignore them. They would grab three new blue electric bikes from the bike rack, nobody would bother them there either, and protected by Sergeant Khan and the three soldiers—who awaited them outside—they would ride back to the point two kilometres away where Shlomo had left them earlier in the day. From that spot Yossi would attempt to contact Shlomo, who most likely wasn’t answering his phone. He would not let on that he knew Shlomo lay comatose in a private hospital. Yossi then was to call headquarters, report that the camera had been successfully placed in Abraham’s office and was operating, that Shlomo mysteriously couldn’t be reached, and arrange for a new vehicle which would take them to the private airfield near Nigohi. Then they could go home.
Khaneja and Jaitendra stood at the second-floor windows overlooking the entrance plaza to Building 6. They had just said their hurried and uncomfortable farewells to Yossi, Riva and Vikram. Outside the gates Raahgiri was in full swing. Crowds of delighted people swept by, many were helmeted and walked bicycles. A marching band assembled at the roadside, adjusted their uniforms and instruments, prepared to set off in a procession. A dance troupe could be seen applying face paint. Streets usually full of impolite vehicles were now the domain of joyful humans. Jaitendra shifted uncomfortably.
‘So, we’re just going to let them go?’
‘I guess so,’ Khaneja said. ‘We can keep a good eye on them. I think they’re of more value to us out in the world than locked up somewhere. You never know when you need to call in a favour.’
Just below them they observed Riva exit the front doors and walk in a very relaxed way to the bike rack. ‘She can’t see us up here through the dark glass,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Nobody can. She’s checking out the rides. There: she’s picked one out, nice new electric blue, branded Talsera. We’re not out of the woods yet. Here comes Vikram and Yossi. Do you think Vikram knows how to ride a bike? They still have to fly home. What’s left for them to do besides stay under the radar until they take off in their private Gulfstream jet?’
‘Nothing more,’ Khaneja said. ‘Their DOS attack was a major failure—we were totally ready for them. Affected none of our clients. Nobody paid any ransoms, including us, and our team learned a hell of a lot more about the blockchain.’
‘I still don’t trust Vikram. He managed to slip a fugitive SIM card past the Israelis. He has good escape karma.’
‘How did your chat with him go?’
‘I told him if it wasn’t for your intervention I would have killed him there and then. I told him if we ever met again under any circumstances anywhere in the world he had better head the opposite direction fast because I would not hesitate to perform an act of homicide on him. By the way, the Skull hasn’t called when he was supposed to. I better call him and …’
‘Wait a minute,’ Khaneja said. ‘A white Ambassador with military markings just drove up. Look. It’s making people nervous, an official car on the street. Somebody’s getting out. Jaitendra, if I’m not mistaken that is your friend Colonel J. G. Singh.’
At that exact moment Jaitendra’s phone rang. ‘Major Jaitendra-sir, this is Sergeant Khan. Sorry to disturb you. We are ready to escort the people from Israel, but our esteemed Colonel J. G. Singh has just driven up and parked in front of Building 6.’ Jaitendra turned to Khaneja.
‘Will you handle this? I gotta deal with the Skull. Then I can come back to Vikram and his friends. Roger that, Sergeant Khan, keep an eye on the Colonel, but don’t approach him yet.’
Jaitendra left Khaneja at the windows and stepped into an adjacent conference room. He dialled the satellite phone number for the Skull and waited. The Skull picked up on the tenth ring. ‘I have to admit your guys are pretty good,’ the Skull said as a greeting. ‘They seem to have temporarily blocked all the doors.’
‘And your guy Shlomo seems to have suffered a personal Denial of Service attack this morning. Want him back? I heard a rumour he’s resting comfortably in a private hospital.’
‘Ah!’ said the Skull with delight. ‘We’re horse trading, are we? Is that all you got?’
‘Here’s my offer: your guy Shlomo can come home once he’s well. Then you can find out more about what happened in Delhi from somebody who was here and saw it all first-hand. He was the dude in charge. Is it a trade?’
‘You no doubt want something in return from me. Better not be money.’
‘Money means nothing to you,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I’ll trade three of my people for one of yours. You’ve been threatening the de Vries family, that Dutch guy living in Monaco. Your part of the deal is you promise to stay away from them, all three of them, de Vries, his wife and their new baby. Then you can have Shlomo back in one piece, soon as he’s able to walk. Truce?’
‘Yeah, OK,’ the Skull grumbled, disappointed. ‘Truce. I thought you were going to ask me for money.’ He hung up.
Jaitendra turned his attention back to the street. He could clearly see Colonel J. G. Singh waiting by the white car, impatiently looking about, expecting company. In seconds a green truck with canvas sides drove through the crowded street, reached the white Ambassador and parked on the road. People did not like having to scatter from its sides, but they gave it room. The back flaps parted, the tailgate dropped and a dozen khaki-clad troops exited. Colonel J. G. Singh waited until they formed two lines and stood at attention. They all wore helmets, sunglasses and carried sidearms in white leather holsters worn on the right hip. Each held a lahti. An angry crowd quickly formed around the troops and people began to chant.
‘NMT!’ they cried, waving their fists. ‘NMT! NMT!’ And they moved dangerously close to the troops, some yelling only inches from the nervous soldiers’ faces. Clearly the presence of the vehicles had incensed the citizenry, but Colonel J. G. Singh could not fathom why the group were outraged about Nuclear Medicine Technology. His troops did not handle nuclear material. There must be some mistake. ‘NMT!’ the crowd continued to yell. ‘NMT!’
‘What are you people shouting about!’ Singh yelled back at them, but soon caught sight of the message on a sign a marcher carried: Non Motorized Transit. Now it all made sense. Green warriors. They hated his car, they hated his troop truck. A recent government memorandum he had read warned to be on the lookout for subversive forces in the ecology movement. But Colonel Singh was not about to be drawn into a political discussion on planetary warming, not at this moment. ‘We are here for the protection of the public!’ he cried out to the crowd. ‘Not to oppose your march! We are here on a matter of national security! We agree with you! I am in favour of NMT!’ These words did not placate the crowd, who continued to chant back at him.
‘NMT! I agree with you!’ Colonel Singh repeated.
‘What is Sir doing here?’ asked Sergeant Khan, who on Khaneja’s direction had surreptitiously stepped to the left of Colonel J. G. Singh, startling him. Singh regarded his officer, whom he knew was stationed at the airstrip near Nigohi. Something was awry. The man was away from his station and out of uniform. The crowd continued to chant. ‘I am on an undercover mission. But I know I did not summon help,’ Sergeant Khan said.
‘A man was injured on the inbound road to IGI,’ Singh stated. ‘He was captured on video carrying a gun. A woman attacked him from behind, severely beat him. Before we could get to the place an ambulance we did not call for took him away. The woman disappeared. The injured man left an abandoned SUV at the crime scene. Inside the vehicle we found a cache of weapons and ammunition, electronic surveillance items and notes and paraphernalia which directed us here to Talsera. From facial recognition systems we identified the missing man. He was one of the people who landed at the airstrip where you have jurisdiction. Now, Sergeant why are you here, and what are you doing? Are you ready to help me locate and apprehend these people who illegally entered India? I am looking for two men and a woman at large. One of them looks like a famous pop singer.’
‘I’ve been following those same people since they arrived, sir. This morning a tip came in from one of my confidential informants. The Israelis drove to Gurgaon, and split up. Three of them came to this office, so I have been keeping an eye on the only entrance. I think the people you’re looking for are inside that building.’ He pointed across the street to Talsera Building 6, but the bike rack where Yossi, Riva and Vikram were standing could not be seen, hidden behind the wall.
As soon as Riva peeked her head around the wall and saw a dozen soldiers standing in formation—commanded by a man in a Colonel’s uniform—she knew they were back in big trouble. She put her hand up to halt Yossi and Vikram, who were walking their bikes to the entryway, turned to them. ‘Some soldiers have arrived. I’ve got to distract them,’ she said. ‘Time for us to split up, reunite later. As soon as I get their attention you guys run for it. Get on the bikes and go as fast as you can. They’re on foot, we’ve got the bikes, so we have the advantage of speed. And there are so many people out here they’ll never be able to follow us with that car. Wait for me to distract him, then you guys run like hell. I’ll meet you out where Shlomo left us. Don’t look back. I’ll lose these guys and be there in a flash. We all stick to our plan, OK?’
Yossi looked at Vikram and they both nodded yes.
What ensued next was later meticulously documented in a top-secret internal government report of over 500 highly censored pages, which was never released in its entirety to the public. It took a year to complete. Fortunately the press quickly lost interest days after the event, and had moved on to other volatile topics. The investigation into the Raahgiri Riot was the work of several independent committees. Each committee proved equally possessive of its own particular findings, made every effort not to share information on the squabble and thwarted any successful collaboration.
The Indian Army studied the conduct, actions and movements of their troops, ultimately disciplining ten soldiers, but did not charge their commanding officer, Colonel J. G. Singh, who led the military tribunal. In the report the soldiers were referred to as Group A and Group B, and detailed maps of their movements over time were delineated in red dotted lines on maps and colourful diagrams, illustrated in a comprehensive one-hour Powerpoint presentation.
A top secret government agency-without-a-name, roughly the equivalent of MI6, studied the suspected involvement of ‘various large-scale international criminal organizations,’ but released only a heavily redacted version of their findings.
The Gurgaon City Havildar held a series of public hearings inviting testimony about what happened, who granted the permit in the first place, the misconduct of certain police officers in making arrests, and recommended 253 new protocols for future Raahgiri events. These were never instituted. It was not conclusively determined who started the riot or what had caused it, though the usual amount of finger-pointing ensued. There was suspicion that Tamil Tigers in some way played a shadowy role. There were 28 arrests and 53 individuals were treated for a variety of injuries at local clinics.
Talsera received a certificate of gratitude for the triage station they set up on the scene free of charge for the victims of the riot.
Riva’s training kicked in when she looked out into the street. She scoped out the crowd, realized they were all bare-headed or wore helmets so her blue Talsera baseball cap was going to stand out, make her easy to follow. She didn’t want that.
From the second floor window, Khaneja and Jaitendra watched the scene unfold. ‘I better get down there,’ Jaitendra said, hurrying for the door.
Riva quickly decided to make her move. She walked her bike across the road, over to Colonel J. G. Singh, stopped right in front of him and smiled her brightest smile. Showed a lot of teeth. Tossed her hair about, looked really happy to see him. She took the cap off her head and handed it over to him, and impulsively Colonel Singh—hoping that it would calm the crowd—took off his red beret, put on the Talsera cap. And was surprised to see Jaitendra striding across the road in his direction. ‘Have a nice day!’ Riva laughed. This presented her with the opportunity to pedal away on her bike, which she did with a delighted wave goodbye, cruising off to the left, winding her way through the meandering crowd.
Jaitendra said, ‘Colonel.’
Colonel Singh said, ‘Major.’
An irate man walked up to Colonel J. G. Singh and shrieked ‘NMT!’ in his face. The chant was taken up by a large group of people who had crowded around him. Singh thought: the cap isn’t working. But he didn’t take it off.
Sergeant Khan said, ‘Sir, I think that girl who gave you the cap was one of them. Should I not follow her?’
‘Of course you should, Sergeant! Take some men and do not lose her!’ By then Riva had long disappeared around the corner, never to be found.
At this point Sergeant Khan directed eight men, who would later be referred to as Group A, to pursue Riva. They attempted to follow Sergeant Khan, but were prevented by a crowd of angry people, and numerous cases of shoving and pushing occurred. Within seconds a brawl had begun, those at the front beaten back by the lahtis and those behind taking videos with their mobile phones. A news camera team could be seen setting up across the street. Someone tossed a battered orange bicycle at the soldiers. General chaos took over the street. Families began to hustle children away from the fracas.
‘Stop those people from the television!’ Singh cried, as the first of the soldiers was shoved to the ground. Group B attempted to cross the street, but were prevented by a mass of people who had rushed to the defence of the news team. Back-up police were summoned.
‘If I may make a suggestion,’ Jaitendra said, stepping between Colonel Singh and some very angry folks wearing ‘Save the Aravali Hills’ T-shirts, ‘you might want to move away from this particular area until your back-up arrives.’ Singh looked about, trying to locate his troops, whose orderly lines had long disappeared. He nodded in agreement, saw one of his soldiers stopping a man who was about to heave a plastic chair from the dhaba into the mêlée. A Thums Up bottle shattered on the ground next to them. People were throwing chunks of concrete and rather large pieces of wood. A woman screamed ‘NMT!’
On a background of all this, Yossi and Vikram easily stole away to the right on their electric bikes. Nobody tried to prevent them and they were gone in an instant, weaving through waves of bikes and strolling people. By now the street in front of Building 6 was filled with brawlers, most of them attacking the uniformed soldiers. A group of irate teens had moved to Colonel Singh’s white Ambassador, where they attempted to break the headlights and windows and smash the fenders. Singh’s driver traded punches with one of the teens. Jaitendra pointed wordlessly at the vehicle under assault. ‘I think I better get going,’ he said. ‘I gotta find those bad guys.’ He left Colonel J. G. Singh swinging his lahti at a hundred flailing arms, barking orders in all directions, to the sound of a hundred voices chanting ‘NMT!’
It was quiet, peaceful and deserted at the spot where Shlomo had dropped them that morning. Riva arrived first and set her bike among some greenery and waited in the shade. Vikram and Yossi got there next, put their bikes next to hers, didn’t speak at first, thought back to the crazy scene they had left behind.
‘I guess I better try Shlomo,’ Yossi finally said. He took out his mobile, dialled the number, heard it ring through, no answer, bounced to voicemail. ‘Shlomo,’ he said halfheartedly, ‘if you’re there pick up. We delivered the cookies to Grandma’s house. If you’re there pick up.’ Finally he sighed and ended the call. Next he called the Skull.
‘Yeah, I already heard,’ the Skull said. ‘You never got a chance to kill that Khaneja guy. Your video camera’s coming in loud and clear. A boring empty office. I suppose you kids want to come home now.’
‘We were kind of hoping for a ride,’ Yossi said.
‘OK,’ the Skull said. ‘I have your coordinates. A car will be there in five minutes. Take you to the airstrip. I’ll send the jet.’
‘Thanks, Boss,’ Yossi said, but by then the Skull had gone. He turned to Riva. ‘Probably better if we let you take the jet alone. The kid and I are gonna try for Rio.’
‘You could come with us, Riva,’ Vikram said. ‘We could be like a family travelling. Yossi’s got a bunch of money, we can find a beach, buy a bar, think up a new plan to conquer the world.’
Riva took Vikram’s arm. ‘Yossi, give us a minute.’ She walked Vikram into the shade. ‘I had a lot of fun with you,’ she said. ‘You’re really sweet when you want to be, but you’re still clueless about people.’
‘You keep saying that, but I don’t get you,’ Vikram said. ‘I think most people are assholes. That guy Shlomo was a jerk. Maybe Yossi’s okay, but if he starts to get weird I’ll ditch him.’
‘You still dreaming of that Brazilian girl?’ Riva asked. ‘Because she’s not holding her breath waiting for you. You better rethink what you’re looking for in a girlfriend.’
‘I really like you,’ Vikram said. ‘Why don’t you bail out and come with us? We could be happy.’
Riva put the tip of her index finger on Vikram’s lips. ‘Shekket,’ she said. ‘You think about what I said.’ She kissed him affectionately on both cheeks and stepped back. ‘Maybe we’ll meet again, but I kinda doubt it.’
Vikram looked over her shoulder. ‘Oh shit,’ he said, as he spied Jaitendra approaching on his bicycle. ‘What’s he doing here?’
‘Can’t hide from him,’ Riva said. ‘Don’t even try.’
‘Ah, Michael Jackson and his Israeli squeeze,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Everything turn out all right?’
‘So far so good,’ Yossi said. ‘The Skull’s sending a ride. But we gotta get out of here before the car comes. Come on, kid, let’s grab that tuk-tuk.’
Jaitendra looked at Vikram. ‘Don’t forget what I said.’
‘I know! I know!’ Vikram said. ‘This time you'll never see me again. I am about to get sooo lost.’ He piled into the tuk-tuk with Yossi and they sped away. Jaitendra and Riva watched them disappear down the road. A family of five passed by, crowded onto a single scooter.
‘I don’t know how people can do that,’ Riva said. ‘They probably live in a one-room flat and give half their money to the temple.’
‘The world’s changing,’ Jaitendra said. ‘It will be different for their kids. The son will buy a Tata Nano, the daughter will work in a McDonald’s. I guess I should wish you good luck. You know how to reach me if something comes up that I need to hear.’
‘I do,’ Riva said. ‘We’ll see what happens when I get back to Tel Aviv without the others.’
‘Tongues will wag,’ Jaitendra said.
Riva looked across at the skyscrapers of Gurgaon. She thought about how much this area had changed. All too quickly. ‘Vikram wasn’t such a bad kid,’ she said. ‘He just believes the worst is always coming. In many ways I liked him better than most of the guys I’ve met in my life. He treated me like a person, not just a body.’
A shiny new BMW cruised to the curb, and Neha opened the passenger side. She looked straight at Riva, no greeting. ‘Get in, husband,’ she said. Jaitendra gave Riva a shrug and a wave, climbed into his car, and they sped away.
Riva stood alone by the roadside, took a deep breath. He was an amazing score, Jaitendra. That girl in the car got really lucky. Riva wondered what his wife understood that was so extraordinary that she didn't, that made a man like him love a woman like her. Riva’s experience was that men grew bored quickly, or stopped talking altogether. Israeli men especially, they always had to be the boss. Maybe a geeky guy like Vikram was the answer. A boring guy that spent most of his life in front of a screen and didn’t have muscles. A guy with a big brain who didn’t know how to talk. A guy who was maybe looking for a substitute mother. A guy who you had to teach everything. Did she need a guy like that? Nah.
Minutes later a black SUV with tinted windows came to a halt in front of her. Riva climbed into the back and settled down in the back seat, smooth leather, air conditioning, an unopened single-use plastic bottle of water in the beverage carrier. There was music playing softly on the sound system, some country singer wailing about looking for love in all the wrong places. The driver said nothing, but she could see he’d already programmed the app to head due east in the direction of the Nigohi airstrip. Homeward bound.
Yossi and Vikram didn’t go straight to IGI with their fake passports. First they had the tuk-tuk drop them at the metro, and they rode all the way to Nehru Place, where they visited Chatterjee Electricals. Old Mr Chatterjee was still there, same bad haircut, installed behind his counter in the cavernous store overflowing with stray technology. He looked curiously at Michael Jackson, he knew the voice but the face didn’t connect. As usual it took Vikram some time to choose a laptop, which had been stolen a day before from a tourist’s backpack in Humayun’s Tomb, a state-of-the-art Lenovo model which he then filled with pirated software. ‘Are you sure we haven’t met before?’ the old man asked.
‘Nope,’ Vikram said. ‘I’m just passing through town. I’m from Serbia.’
‘The accent is Bengali,’ Mr Chatterjee said to himself after they left. ‘You’re not Serbian. You may look like Michael Jackson, but you can’t fool me.’
Vikram and Yossi hopped into a taxi, told the driver to take them to IGI, Terminal 3, and Vikram stuck the Talsera flash drive into his new laptop.
A screen lit up in Talsera Building 6 and a fresher assigned to watch for activity said, ‘Bingo! Looks like somebody has a new computer!’
In the cab Vikram reached around to scratch his back. That damned spot again he could never get to.
Adita bit the bullet and telephoned him. After polite greetings she asked if he had been in contact with her father. As she suspected, neither Bansal nor Raj Kumarji had changed their arrangement about the loan for her wedding. She knew it was the moment to act.
‘Your father avoided me at the temple this morning,’ Bansal the moneylender said. ‘Unusual, but I suppose he is starting to get nervous about your upcoming wedding. It is often the case.’
‘I told you, Bansal-ji,’ Adita said, ‘the wedding is off.’
‘And I shall wait for your father, child, to give me any changes of plan. He is the responsible party. As far as I am concerned, the loan stands.’
‘Bansal-ji, there is one thing I would like my father never to know.’
‘And that is?’ Bansal asked kindly.
‘That the funds you have loaned him have a dark past.’
‘What are you talking about, child? Are you using alcohol or drugs in the big city?’
‘Let me tell you something. I work in the technology sector,’ she said. ‘So we have unusual access to information. For example, I can tell you that your average monthly telephone charge is ?278. That you send an average of 154 SMS messages a month over the last 12 months.’
‘What does my phone bill have to do with your father’s outstanding loan? And who gave you permission to collect that information?’ Bansal sat up in his easy chair and mopped his brow.
‘Would you like me to tell you exactly how much in Indian income taxes you paid last year? How many hectares of land you officially own?’
‘That is all probably a matter of public record, if one knew how to search for it,’ Bansal said. ‘It sounds like you have been using your technological skills to stalk me. Do not force me to swear out a complaint against you for intrusions of privacy.’
‘I am acquainted with a hungry young reporter for the Times of India,’ Adita said. ‘I wonder if he would like an anonymous news tip about the banking practices of a certain unnamed moneylender who coincidentally lives in my home village. This man has received regular and unusually large money transfers from a Dubai financial institution. Oddly enough an institution whose name a government inquiry recently linked to the funding of Kashmiri separatists.’
‘Now just a moment,’ Bansal attempted.
‘And the laundering of money, which is illegal,’ Adita said. ‘Large sums from a suspicious Dubai bank, which seem to flow in and out of our unnamed moneylender’s account. A pattern of transactions. Every month a big deposit arrives, and a day later a comparable amount gets transferred out. I would never like my father to know the source for the funds of his loan. He would be ashamed to receive such tainted money.’
Bansal said, ‘Now you wouldn’t want to send any of this to that reporter fellow, put any strange or suspicious thoughts in his mind. Of course none of it is true, but why get newspaper people snooping around our little village? That would be unnecessary.’
‘We will repay you every cent of the loan, and your interest, exactly as my father promised,’ Adita said. ‘You will not bother my father about it again, you will not pressure him in any way. You will not make any attempt to seize our family land near the train station. As long as you leave father alone, that reporter will not be contacted. You will get your money as we agreed.’
Bansal sat back in his chair. This would be the ruination of him if his Dubai paymasters were ever revealed. He could not permit any investigation into his bank transfers. He realized that hidden behind Adita’s façade of a polite and dutiful daughter there lurked a dangerous individual, one he did not want to upset.
‘I am so sorry to hear about the cancellation of your wedding,’ he said. ‘A good marriage is a blessing. I am sure there is a more suitable partner for you to be found in your future. I wish you a better experience the next time around. Your father will pay me back as agreed. And as a favour to an old friend, due to the circumstances, I will waive the interest. And we will speak about this no more, theek hai?’
‘I am glad we understand each other,’ she said. And ended the call. Seconds later an SMS appeared. Ravi.
Ravi and Mona took a long lunch and had a heart-to-heart talk at a quiet booth at Mr Chef International. He first sent the message to Adita from their table.
It was very clear that a serious affair had begun, one consummated spontaneously the night before in Mona’s yoga teacher’s borrowed apartment. They had shared a bottle of Indian wine. Ravi quickly recognized that Mona had a lot more experience than he did. She was especially kind and patient with him, urging him along with little gestures and very few words. When he awakened that morning naked in bed next to her, memories of the unexpected delights he had experienced filled his mind. She was everything he had hoped for and more, dressed and undressed.
Mona saw things in a pragmatic light. Ravi was obviously from a good family, and marriage to him would be a step up socially. He was certainly a better grade of young man than the muscle bound lads who hung out at the gym. And he was nowhere as smooth and suspicious an operator as the boys who frequented the dance classes. They were all accomplished con artists, she knew from experience. She could tell Ravi was quite taken with her, and she intended to try and act respectably, at least in public. In the boudoir all the rules changed.
Ravi sat next to her in the booth and set up his laptop, screen facing them. He tested the camera angle. She adjusted her lipstick and eye make-up, ran a comb through her shoulder-length hair. He started a Skype call with his parents and introduced Mona. He could see they were immediately uncomfortable. He explained that things had slowly worsened with Adita and that they had mutually decided to call things off. She had cancelled the wedding. Her father had been made aware. But somehow in the meantime, he and Mona discovered they were attracted to each other for a long time, and they wanted to get engaged immediately. Mona tried to look demure, she cast her eyes downward, said she thought Ravi was a wonderful man, and that she hoped she could be a good daughter to them. She would be very happy to introduce them to her parents whenever they thought it was appropriate.
Ravi’s mother hit the Mute button on their computer and turned away from the camera.
‘Our son is sleeping with that girl,’ she said to his father. ‘Look at him. I liked Adita better.’
Ravi’s father gave off with an embarrassed laugh. He unmuted the microphone and stared at the kids on the screen. They were holding hands in plain sight. ‘Isn’t this a little sudden?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps we should give it some time.’
Dusk was upon Nigohi as Riva walked the wooded path from the highway to the airstrip. She took her time to the music of cicadas. Something went hoohoohoohoo off to the side. Once she reached the runway she looked for a Gulfstream G280 parked, not here yet, but it did not give her pause. Many times in her career she had waited at lonely outposts for the next thing to happen. She’d expected to fetch her bag from Shlomo’s vehicle, nothing expendable in it but a shiny black silk top she liked, but all she had now was a blue Talsera tote with a water bottle, her false passport and a handful of €200 notes for emergency cash.
Somewhere high over Jaipur the Skull reclined in a deerskin-covered seat on his private jet. He held a Baccarat crystal drink glass filled with three ice cubes and a hefty pour of 25-year-old Dalwhinnie single-malt whisky. He took a sip and dialled Riva’s number. She let it ring for a while, picked up at nine.
‘I’m on my way to you now, should be touching down in an hour. Are you guys all there? I know our buddy Shlomo isn’t coming home right away.’
‘Neither are Yossi and Michael Jackson,’ Riva said.
‘No kidding!’ the Skull said. ‘They get in the way of some stray ordnance, or simply fly the coop?’
‘I think they saw an opportunity to bail out and took it. Pressures of the job.’
‘That’s OK,’ the Skull said. ‘Vikram’s still wearing that chip. We can track him wherever he shows up. I’m going to keep them out there for the moment, see where they run, what they do. We’re watching some girl in Brazil that Michael Jackson’s been in contact with. Too bad about Shlomo. He wasn’t the cowboy he thought he was. He got stopped by an Indian. A funny thing happened at the same time, though. A billion euros went missing for a few hours, floated out of an account I use with the local politicos to shore up the local currency, floated back after trading hours. Word got out about it, and now there’s a panic going down in the stock market. Shares are plummeting, people are jumping out of windows. The wireheads say it was a glitch, but I dunno. I’m going to buy a bunch more Bitcoins tomorrow as insurance. Not a big deal. I’ve been shorting the hryvnia anyway. So I made a bundle.’
‘What about our operation?’ Riva asked. ‘I’ve spent a lot of energy on this one, it’s cost us three people. The good guys appear to have won.’
‘Yeah, OK, go ahead and shut it down,’ The Skull said indifferently. ‘Good try on our part, only cost me $127 million. I can take that kind of a loss. I’ve got some new ideas we can work on. Be there in half an hour. I’ll take you to dinner in Mumbai tonight, then we can start for home.’
Adita stopped short at the newsstand. ‘Read that headline,’ she said to Nitin.
HRYVNIA CRASHES—mysterious market collapse
‘I wonder if we did that.’
‘That’s not going to be our problem,’ Nitin said. ‘The money got restored, it just went missing for a half a day. Our problem is the $70k in your account. We can’t give it back, but we can’t hold on to it.’
‘I actually considered using some of it to repay Bansal. But after the penalties and refunds for the wedding are in it won’t cost me all that much. Ravi and I had separate savings. I can afford the difference. And that money’s not really ours. What do you say we save it for the next generation and let them figure out what to do with it? We might come up with a clever plan before that. Lots of ways it could be put to good use. We’re certainly not going to spend it. And I don’t want to burden Danny Khaneja with knowledge of it. Not about moving that billion, not about holding this extra seventy thousand dollars.’
‘Watson, you never cease to astound me.’
Nitin’s father had prepared tea, which was waiting for them. He offered them biscuits and even made small jokes. They could tell his father approved. But, Adita thought, this time I will go slowly and let them take the lead. And say very little to Raj Kumarji.
‘Holmes and Watson,’ Nitin’s father laughed. ‘I like your nicknames. I like them very much.’
Shlomo awoke with a start, tried to sit up, couldn’t remember what to do with his arms, they felt all flabby. He looked up. White room, billowy curtains. Bandages, lots of bandages and tubes. Little red and blue lights. Neep neep neep.
A nurse walked in. ‘I just saw your vitals spike,’ she said. ‘How are you doing?’
‘I don’t know,’ Shlomo said. ‘How was I before?’
‘You were asleep,’ the nurse said. ‘We didn’t know when you would wake up.’
‘Where am I?’ Shlomo asked. ‘Am I in Africa?’
‘Africa? Why would you be there?’
‘It’s the only place I can think of.’
‘No, you are in New Delhi,’ the nurse said, fluffing his pillow.
‘Where is that?’ Shlomo asked. ‘And while you’re at it, what is my name? I can’t quite remember.’
The nurse nodded. ‘At the moment you are known as Patient 12a. We must find a name for you. Would you like to suggest one?’
‘No, I would not,’ Shlomo said. ‘Why don’t you suggest one.’
‘I will call you Irresistible,’ she said. ‘That suits.’
Rajan Abraham saw a new Solid Black Tesla Model S parked in the drive outside his home. ‘I wonder whose car that is,’ he thought. One of her posh friends.
Late in the day Khaneja sat in his office and tried to catch up. Few people other than his partners and his wife knew how complex his work was. How many hours he spent reading documents, talking to people, arguing with lawyers about the intricacies of contracts. Today he had to read about how the Raahgiri went. The street in front of Building 6 had been cleared and was quiet. Maintenance teams had scoured the road for debris, and the place looked back to normal. The triage clinic in the lobby was long gone.
Once again Talsera had weathered a crisis, but it was not thanks to only one person. Rajan Abraham and the software team had figured out the sinister phone apps which first appeared. Jaitendra had again handled the operational side with real élan. Hari Bhayya and the security team played their part perfectly. A team with trust and experience had once again worked together to save the company. Tomorrow would begin new human dramas. It was teamwork which enabled them go forward. Khaneja put his feet up on his desk. Thank you, India, he thought. You are my land of promise.
Mr Ho and Mr Chu calling. The Skull picked up.
‘I’m just coming in for a landing somewhere,’ he said. ‘Make it quick.’
‘You saw that the hryvnia crashed today.’
‘I did,’ the Skull said.
‘Those guys in India did it.’
The Skull began to laugh. ‘They did?’ he managed to say. ‘Those kids in New Delhi! That’s terrific! Thanks for letting me know. I’ll talk to you later.’
Mr Hu looked at Mr Chu. ‘That guy really crazy,’ he said. •
When The Hacker first appeared in 2012, I had no idea if it would attract any fans, or continue with a life of its own for the next seven years. Today I am so grateful for the longevity, and the contact with the community that formed around it. People continue to ask what happened to Vikram and the Talsera team, and I hope that this follow-up episode fulfils your desires. Thank you all for your encouragement and patience.
Dr Manas Fuloria first suggested the idea and continues to champion it. His ongoing wisdom helps to sustain the project.
Rajat Verma and wife Sanjana, who operate Shanti Boutique Hotels in Delhi, act as invaluable cultural resources and affectionate friends.
Satya Bushan Sharma consulted on the Gulfstream G280 flight plan—a Grand Master of the logistics world.
Mohan Narayanswamy and Praveen Langham, at Travelscope India in Delhi prevail as the expert travel planners who move us around the subcontinent with incredible aplomb.
Wesley Erwin Shyer left Planet Earth before this book was completed and is greatly missed.
Paula, you’re the best partner on earth, your patience is infinite, you’re my soul and my heart’s inspiration.
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