LIVING We pick up the story with Jan de Vries heading home to Rotterdam, where a surprise awaits, while Vikram is spirited away, and there’s a wedding to plan for Ravi and Adita. It’s all in travel editor Stanley Moss’s sequel to The Hacker, Hack Is Back
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
One year earlier Jan de Vries had gone to India determined to shake things up at Talsera, one of his main technology suppliers. For this action he had two specific motivations, for each he had different degrees of attachment.
The first was that his company, RoodInfo, had been contacted by an untested competitor firm in Delhi who appeared to possess inside information and higher technical skills and was quoting him an impossibly low price to do the same work as Talsera; he needed to know if the company was legitimate, if it was time to switch horses. It turned out they definitely were not—instead, simply the brainchild of a half-demented and disgruntled ex-employee named Vikram. Thanks to Danny Khaneja and his partners, a potentially ugly situation for all parties implicated had been successfully squashed. De Vries was impressed.
The second reason was a young woman named Shivani Sachdeva, to whom he was passionately attracted, despite the fact that she continually abused him. Shivani was a project manager at Talsera with whom he’d had a chaste dalliance years earlier when she was in charge of his account and posted in Rotterdam. He had used every persuasive trick he possessed to seduce her, but ultimately failed to talk her into the sack, which only heightened his obsessive desire for her. He took inexplicable pleasure from the biting comments and insults she delivered to him. She did not appear to fear him in the slightest, and that intrigued him as well, since he believed that he was smarter than most people populating Planet Earth, and that the greater part of humanity lived in continual dread of him. While in India things had played perfectly into his hands, Shivani had been asked to leave the company, enabling them to reignite their friendship more along the lines he wished. Shivani had left Talsera because it turned out she had provoked the very renegade ex-employee who had sought such a serious revenge on Talsera. This stroke of luck provided Jan de Vries with the opportunity to spirit Shivani away to the Seychelles, where they luxuriated for a month together at a private resort, in a plush overwater villa at the end of a jetty, perched on an infinite turquoise sea, far from the reaches of society. For the most part it had gone well, and they developed a polite routine of cooperation. At the completion of the holiday de Vries had no idea whether the affair would continue, but he continued to hunger for her voluptuous curves and jet black hair, her luscious mouth and the defiant words that accompanied them. She also was independently wealthy, so he knew she would not have designs on his fortune as had some of his earlier close calls. He gladly paid for everything, and she volunteered not a penny, appearing to believe that it was her right to be taken care of in high style. De Vries felt the cost of hosting Shivani was worth the thrills it brought. He could certainly afford it. But would they meet again? There was also the issue of his fat, overweight wife who lived in Rotterdam, with whom he had barely a relationship, from whom this all was hidden.
Shivani had gone back to Delhi, business to take care of, you understand dear, let’s do Skype calls. De Vries had tacked on additional weeks for meetings across the USA before returning to Rotterdam. He and Shivani had indeed tried a few Skype calls, where she would impatiently paint her nails while on-screen and feed him short doses of sarcasm. He found in the calls that she was constantly pushing him, but after each call he felt oddly exhilarated. On the road many women flirted with him, middle-aged flight attendants and personal assistants, but they weren’t as sophisticated or smart as she was. He never shed the preoccupation with Shivani, whose memory stimulated him so, a woman twenty years his junior from another culture, with her strange scents and tastes. Business could wait.
A gentle fog swirled around the trunks of passing trees and carpeted the roads outside the Rotterdam city limits. It delicately enveloped the elevated dikes which separated plots of land, all hidden by the mist. It was late, past midnight, and the driver knew enough not to address his passenger Jan de Vries, who sat motionless in the back of an elegant black sedan. Drivers from his agency had standing instructions to treat this long-standing client with extreme care, the minimum of eye contact, be certain of an absolutely spotless exterior and interior, and no speaking unless spoken to. The driver had made this trip before, and he drove efficiently, taking the familiar turnoff into a very exclusive neighbourhood of mansions set on isolated and spacious pieces of land, through a landscape of high hedges and perfectly manicured gardens. To reach his home you travelled a short private road, up a rounded drive, into a private cobblestoned courtyard which faced a perfect brick and slate house. Two very expensive and impeccable automobiles were perfectly parked nose-out before a pair of discreet dove grey garage doors. Golden tungsten lamps swept across the front of the house and briefly lit the doorway surrounded by its lattice of blooming flowers. The car came to a halt, passenger door perfectly positioned in front of the steps. There the driver opened the passenger door, de Vries climbed out without a word, stretched his arms as the driver fetched the rolling case from the trunk and placed it on the steps by the door. A moment later he was gone, red taillights receding down the drive, and Jan de Vries fumbled with the light on his phone to find the keyhole.
The fat Berthe had neglected to leave the porch light on, he realized, which was not usual, nor was a dark house. She must have hit the martinis hard tonight, he thought. He let himself into the house, turned on lights, kicked off his shoes, poured himself a cognac, watched the late news on CNN. Poured himself another cognac. Watched Al Jazeera for a while. De Vries had been in no hurry to get home, knowing what he would find there. He was in no hurry to get to bed, knowing what he would find there. After his flight from NYC had landed at Schipol he had gone directly to his club in town, ate his first decent meal in two months, smoked a cigar, deflected conversation from a couple acquaintances he didn’t want to encourage, read the papers, finally decided it was late enough to head home, called for a car. She’d be in bed, and they would not have to talk. He’d endure her boring questions tomorrow over breakfast. Now, installed in his own house, he went back over their conversation that morning when he had called from the first-class lounge at JFK airport.
She had seemed more distant than usual, he thought. Already vague at 8 a.m. Rotterdam time, unable to complete her sentences, monosyllabic. He’d been on the road for two months, and though they had daily contact he told her little about what he was doing, certainly nothing about Shivani, only that he had gone to the Seychelles for meetings and to review some very complex documents. She had tried to nail him down on when he was due at home, he told her after midnight, and she definitely had said she would leave the porch light on, as usual. Except she hadn’t. There had been the odd occasion in the past when he’d come home to find her passed out on the couch and had to help her upstairs, not an easy task now that she had grown so heavy. In a fit of exasperation, de Vries walked to the bedroom, expecting to find her sprawled on their bed, which was not the case.
‘Berthe?’ he said, opening the door. ‘Berthe?’ No answer. Gone to oblivion, he thought. He flipped on the light, knowing that in her condition it would make no difference. But there she was, tucked neatly in bed under the coverlet, pillows fluffed behind her head, on her back, eyes closed, arms calmly folded over her immense belly. ‘Berthe! Wake up!’ He walked to her side of the bed, found the low table where her tea was usually set, but instead of the tea tray he saw her open martini shaker, a half empty glass, and by its side a half-full pill bottle. De Vries gave a start and put his palm to her forehead, ice cold to the touch. He bent over and placed his ear next to her mouth, no breath came forth. He lifted the martini shaker, lukewarm clear liquid sloshed around in it, ice melted, she had been in bed for hours. He checked her pulse, nothing. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said to nobody in particular, and plopped down on the upholstered chair across from the bed, where he sat in silence for a half-hour.
Dr Grijpstra arrived shortly before daybreak, immediately searched for the carotid artery, raised her eyelids, listened with his stethoscope, surveyed the bedside table, looked knowingly at Jan de Vries, shook his head. ‘I will need to prepare the death certificate,’ he said. Holding up the pill bottle he added, ‘You may want to place this back among her medications. No need for anyone to observe it here. Leave the martini shaker. She’s apparently been gone for a while, expired hours before you got home, certainly hours before you called me. I think we can safely record it as death attributable to alcoholic coma, leave it at that, all the signs present. No need to call attention, keep it quiet, private. I had last seen her a week ago. She did not appear well. I assume you’ll not require an autopsy.’ De Vries shook his head no. ‘I think that is a wise decision, cleanest way to deal with this, keep the authorities away. Unfortunate, I always liked Berthe. You’ve been travelling quite a long time, haven’t you?’ De Vries nodded. ‘Do you need some more time with her, or shall I summon the mortuary? Ah. You’ve said your goodbyes, then.’
The doctor made a few muttering phone calls filled out the form, two constables arrived, looked at the scene and nodded knowingly, an ambulance arrived without siren or flashing lights, Berthe was zipped into a black body bag, carried away on a stretcher by two struggling attendants, and Jan de Vries, the doctor and the constables were left standing in the foyer. More forms were signed, the constables seemed satisfied, they left. The sun came up.
‘Well now, Janny,’ the doctor said. ‘With your permission I’d like to head home now. Your call came rather late, I was in bed, you see. I’ll visit the coroner on the way home, get this autographed, don’t worry about that official detail. Do you need something to help you sleep? No? I know you have a lot of calls to make, there are going to be papers to complete. You seem very composed, but it will set in eventually, so be ready for it. One other thing, this may not be the moment to talk about it, but if you decide you don’t want to hold on to her XJ12 out in the driveway, I’d be willing to give you a fair offer for it.’
The paperwork turned out to be complicated, more than he could have imagined, yet it proceeded swiftly. For a month he had scarcely a moment to himself. Berthe had been quite thorough and retained top legal talent, and while he knew she had been independent, he did not expect to receive such a vast number, over €200 million in cash after taxes, but that was the way she and her solicitors had structured it. Sensational wealth, he thought, and she could have had a lot more fun with it. Now she had dumped a mountain of money on him, and he did not mean to let it sit. A plan began to form in his mind. He would use some of it to buy Talsera, offer the brown guys more cash than they had ever seen, grow the business to a size they could never dream.
He had not wanted to burden Shivani with all the intricacies following the demise of the fat Berthe, so he held off calling. But eventually he felt ready to talk to her, emailed her and suggested a Skype date which she accepted. When he saw her on the screen he knew in some perverse way he missed her, and he could tell she missed him by the rhythm of their greetings to each other. ‘I have some news for you,’ he said.
‘I do, too,’ interjected Shivani.
‘The fat Berthe has died,’ he said. ‘About a month ago. I’ve been consumed with the funeral and lawyers, things like that, but it looks like most of the heavy lifting is done. I waited to call you.’
‘My sympathies,’ Shivani said. ‘That’s a weight off your shoulders. She was your favourite topic, you know. You don’t have anything new to complain about yet, do you?’
‘She’s left me a lot of money, an astounding amount,’ de Vries said. ‘Money I have a plan to inject into RoodInfo if your pals in Gurgaon will cooperate. I want to buy them up, then grow them into an IPO. Could take a couple years, but I’ve got the time and they have the talent. Everybody could get really rich.’
‘I’m sure the boys will be glad to hear your generous offer. Isn’t Ricky Talsera supposed to be in Europe this coming week?’
‘How do you know that, Shiv?’
‘You think because I left the premises I don’t get information. I’m a charter shareholder, remember. People still talk to me.’
‘My plan is to surprise him with my offer. Take him to lunch, blow his mind.’
‘I am sure you will succeed at that, Jan.’
‘I will. Now, what did you want to tell me?’
‘Ah yes, my news. I was trying to remember how they taught us this was phrased in the good old days.’
‘I’m not getting you,’ Jan de Vries said.
‘What I’m trying to tell you, Jan,’ she said, ‘is you have got me with child. Yes, that’s how they used to say it. Got me with child. So what do you think about that?’
A year earlier, continued
In a small valley perhaps a mile long, with a cenotaph set at the top of one of the surrounding hills, the SUV came to a halt, the handsome man threw open his side door and shoved Vikram into the cool night air.
‘OK kid, over there in the bushes and make it quick.’ Darkness was upon them, the sky an inky black dotted with a few brilliant stars, but no moon in sight. They had pulled the SUV next to plantings deep in the silence of nowhere. Off in the indeterminate distance an invisible fire burned and they could smell its bitter smoke. ‘Don’t do anything clever,’ the handsome man warned. ‘I’m going to be watching you. I know what you’re capable of. You try to escape I’ll shoot you in the back, we clear?’
‘Clear,’ Vikram said, heading for the shrub. ‘Very clear. I am here, sir,’ he said, ducking into the shadows. ‘I am still here. I am just finding a suitable spot. Yes, I have found it now. I am still here, sir. Do not shoot.’
‘You don’t have to tell me every move you are making, Vikram. And stop calling me sir.’
‘Never gonna happen,’ interjected the Paki, who wasn’t a Paki. His name was actually Shlomo. ‘I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he can’t stop.’
‘Can you tell me what is your good name, sir? I am still here. I am almost finished.’ Vikram said.
‘You’re on,’ said the handsome guy to his cohort. ‘My name’s Yossi,’ he called, raising his voice so that Vikram could hear him. ‘You just call me Yossi from now on.’
‘Thank you, Yossi sir,’ Vikram said. ‘I am still here. Please do not shoot me.’
‘You’re gonna owe me a hundred,’ Shlomo said.
When Vikram emerged from the bushes they walked him across what turned out to be a stretch of paved tarmac, turned right on the far side. ‘Keep walking,’ Yossi said, giving Vikram a little shove from behind. They walked another 500 ft and Vikram halted in his tracks, staring dumbly ahead.
‘A Gulfstream G280,’ he gasped. ‘A real G280. Can cruise three thousand six-hundred nautical miles, at maximum operating speed of point eight five mach, initial cruise altitude 42,000 ft. Are we going on that? A real Gulfstream G280?’
‘Where’d you learn all those facts?’ Yossi asked.
‘Online,’ Vikram mumbled, looking at his toes. ‘I guess I read it somewhere. Am I really going on that?’
‘What if you are?’ Yossi asked. ‘You have an objection?’
‘I have no passport, sir, no money. Every documentation I once had we have left behind in that bloody room. With all due respect, I am now considered a non-person, like in the novel Curse of the Identity Snatchers, a very fine book which I recommend, has sir read it? The bitter ex-girlfriend of a code writer takes her revenge by making his life a living hell. Sir, I very much sympathized with the main character.’
‘The name is Yossi. You don’t worry about that now, kid. I take care of passport and money, you join the book club later. You ready to climb aboard, or you want I leave you behind? I’m gonna need to hear some statement of cooperation from you before I open this cabin door and bring down the stairs or you’re not going anywhere.’
‘Mr Hooda? Dilbar Khaneja.’
‘Danny,’ Ajit Hooda said warmly. ‘It has been a while. How’s your Dad? Has your boy learned the family late cut yet?’
‘Thank you for asking,’ Khaneja said. ‘My Dad thinks he ought to play professionally. I’m trying to get him interested in IIT.’
Hooda chuckled. ‘Wait until he turns eight, then ask his opinion. Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call? It’s not about that thing last year, is it? A pity to lose so many men at one time, so many young people. Such a tragedy, so much promise, so much corruption. A terrible waste.’ Hooda sighed.
‘This is something new,’ Khaneja said. ‘You know anything about Bitcoins?’
‘I have my experts,’ Hooda said.
‘I may need to borrow somebody from that department later. But at the moment I’m more interested in knowing who’s been watching us. Who’s been asking questions, who’s got us on their radar?’
‘And you believe that because…’
‘Because somebody saw a great infusion of cash come into Talsera’s coffers. At that exact same moment we got approached with an extortion demand. I don’t believe in coincidences. These guys saw we got rich, and they knew it was the right time to apply pressure. So I want to know, who’s been curious about us?’
‘That’s provocative,’ Ajit Hooda said. ‘I will get back to you.’ And he hung up.
Present day, continued
This should be fun, Jaitendra thought, punching the number into his mobile phone. He was standing in the middle of a vast, empty parking lot at Kingdom of Dreams. His new BMW rested at a jaunty angle to the painted parking spaces, and there appeared to be nobody except a pack of foraging feral pigs within a hundred metres in any direction. It was early in the day, and his shadow stretched long across the pavement. The musical plink of a call signal came through the earphone as it fled planet earth and sped to a communications satellite 36,000 km away in deep space, then ping-ponged back to earth’s surface 4,048 km from Jaitendra’s location. Somebody at the other end picked up, said, ‘Yeah?’
‘You know who this is. I’m talking to Yossi?’ Jaitendra asked.
‘Maybe,’ Yossi said.
‘You feel like helping me out on something?’
‘Depends. Tell me.’
‘About a year ago somebody was moving high-class aircraft in and out of the abandoned airfield near Nigohi, ring a bell?’
‘Maybe,’ Yossi said.
‘Recently resurfaced with top grade paving materials, easy landing and take-off.’
‘Could be possible.’
‘Mostly night moves? Gulfstream G280s, sound familiar?’
‘Somebody has been talking too much.’
‘You want to help me out,’ Jaitendra said, ‘you come up with names and dates and who was doing the running. Crews and pilots, passengers and destinations. Rumours, chatter, wild speculations. I want to hear it all.’
‘Then what?’ Yossi asked.
‘Then I ask you more questions,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Then you answer them.’
‘And then what?’ Yossi said.
‘Then you benefit from my undying friendship.’
Stultifying heat, and Raj Kumarji did not hurry, padding through the deserted village, past the pharmacy shutters closed tight, past the schoolyard empty of children and voices, past the potter’s walled compound where the wheel was silent and brown clay water jugs stood lined up to dry. A white cow had placed herself on the ground in front of the gate where Raj Kumarji hesitated. He removed his kerchief, mopped his brow under the line of his turban, polished the lenses of his glasses, touched the cow for good luck, took a deep breath, opened the gate.
Perhaps the clanking noise of the gate’s metal clasp alerted Bansal, the house’s resident, who stood in the doorway by the time Raj Kumarji made his namaste from the bottom of the steps. An overweight man in his 50s, Bansal’s simple open-collared white business shirt and billowing linen trousers did little to conceal his abundant bulk. He wore a huge ruby ring on one of his fat fingers, and his puffy toes peered out from the fronts of a pair of battered sandals.
‘Welcome, Uncle Raj,’ he said affably. ‘You honour this house with your visit. Come in, let me serve you a cup of chai. And may I immediately offer my warmest congratulations on the very happy news of your daughter’s forthcoming marriage.’
‘Thanks to you,’ Raj Kumarji said. ‘The very reason I have come to see you. I hope I am not disturbing you.’
‘Not at all, not at all,’ Bansal assured him. ‘You know you can always come to me. What is on your mind?’ Bansal involuntary rubbed his palms together, yet he kept a benevolent look on his face, like the kind-hearted soul he knew himself to be. ‘The details of such a momentous occasion can often be overwhelming.’
‘Exactly,’ Raj Kumarji said. ‘I knew you would understand.’
‘I do,’ Bansal offered. ‘I have myself married off the last of my daughters ten years ago, and I remember very well the complexities. Take a biscuit, please. These are special Walker’s Pure Butter Shortbreads brought to me from Harrod’s of London by my uncle’s sister’s cousin. Guest deserves only the best.’
‘My daughter seems to feel 25 dishes is enough for her guests, but when I told this to Pooja Madam at the Mahindra dealership she made a face.’
‘Yes, that woman always has an opinion. But in this case I think she may be right, after all, your daughter only marries once in a lifetime. Thirty dishes ought not to make a big difference, but what an impression! People will talk about it for years. How many guests do you expect?’
‘That is another problem,’ Raj Kumarji said. ‘This event is spiralling out of control. At first I thought I could get away with 250 guests, but the number invited has doubled. Doubled!’
Bansal smiled benevolently. ‘You are a great man in our village, so it is understandable.’ he began. ‘And your daughter’s father is highly respected. I think everyone realizes that this is an important wedding and one that will not be so easily forgotten. First, you must be grateful that the groom will pay for the pandits, the band, the white horse, and for so many marigolds.’
‘But this begins to venture beyond my humble means,’ Raj Kumarji muttered.
‘Excuse me?’ Bansal said. ‘I did not hear that. Could you repeat?’
‘The cost of the clothes for the boy’s family, the jewellery gifts to the to the mother, sister, aunty, grandmother,’ Mr Raj said. ‘The household goods, do you know the cost of a set of pans, Bansal? I must give them a car, and these children live in Delhi so it must be a new car and not just any car.’ His voice took on a strained quality. ‘Whatever am I going to do?’
Bansal settled in his chair, took a relaxed sip from his teacup, patted Raj Kumarji on the knee and said, ‘I am sure this all can be worked out. Just how much do you think this wedding will cost? It sounds like at least twenty lakhs to me.’ Raj Kumarji gave off with a start, paled, swallowed hard. ‘It is not an impossible sum to spend,’ Bansal said. ‘Have you given thought to the dowry?’
Raj Kumarji reached for his tea, took a long sip and grabbed at the cushion of the seat. ‘Another 15 lakhs?’ he breathed.
‘A most generous thought,’ Bansal said. ‘A very respectable sum, one to be admired, a gesture to be revered. So you wish to borrow 35 lakhs for Adita’s marriage?’
‘As I said, it is beyond my current means,’ Raj Kumarji said, bowing his head.
‘Don’t you worry about that, Raj Kumarji. Whenever you have the money you can pay me. For the moment we must get your daughter married in style, which is our number-one job. That is our goal. You will secure the loan with the usual papers and documents, and then you have no need to worry any longer about the expense of Adita’s wedding. Is your mind at rest now?’
‘Thank you, my dear friend. I simply worry about the cost of such a thing.’
‘Why, the usual amount,’ Bansal said. ‘Only five per cent per month. But you pay me back whenever you have the money. I trust you. I have known you all my life. I am sure you are good for every penny of it.’
‘It is very curious,’ Hari Bhayaa said.
‘Or there are no coincidences,’ Priyanka said. ‘What did you say this app was called?’
‘MasterTaxWallah,’ Hari Bhayya answered. ‘It’s on all three of the phones that came in for repair this week. Have you heard of it? I have never seen it before.’
‘I know it’s buggy,’ Priyanka said. ‘I read about it on some geek site. People download it to simplify their tax preparation. It outputs income declarations in final form. But it also messes up some people’s phone functions. Does stuff to the address books. Screen sometimes goes blank.’
‘That sounds right, exactly the same complaints I had,’ Hari Bhayya said. ‘We better warn these kids to delete it, find another app to do their tax-paying.’
Priyanka walked back to her office, sat down in front of the screen. Googled MasterTaxWallah, got right to the website:
Priyanka nodded at the screen. Pretty simple way to capture information, she thought. Let’s see who’s behind this product. She clicked through the Company Info link at the bottom and wound up at the home page for Meshuga Industries, a division of UltraTel Group, Tel Aviv. She soon learned that Meshuga’s dynamic CEO Shlomo Golan started the company to improve people’s bookkeeping experiences, after serving for 10 years as a field accountant for the Israeli Defense Services. Meshuga’s clients today can be found all over the world. See our entire online suite of products which can make your life easier, your work smarter, with faster and better results.
Priyanka didn’t realize she was nodding along with the information, unconsciously murmuring ‘Mmmm hmm’ as she read. A remote chance it was a business prospect for Talsera. The better chance was a bunch of ruthless people giving software a bad name. First, she needed to dig deeper into Meshuga Industries and its mysterious parent UltraTel Group. She knew just who to call to find out: an expert researcher at Talsera named Adita. Then, she needed to put a team in place to pore over the MasterTaxWallah software, see what was going on in there that was messing up people’s phones.
The present, continued
The morning of the next day found 70 Talsera colleagues happily rolling down the road from Gurgaon to CP on Raahgiri Day. Cool breezes, bright sunlight and 30 km of smooth road made for an ideal ride. Khaneja had been concerned that some unwitting rivalries might occur, because every possible type of bicycle showed up, from obscenely expensive supergraphite frames to battered traditional 10-speeds, but nobody seem to react badly. There was a happy spirit of fellowship prevailing in the group, who wore their Talsera T-shirts proudly, and waved at local residents at the roadsides as they sped along their way. Khaneja couldn’t really relax. People kept coming up to him, congratulating him. Local politicos wanted photos taken with him, while Danny knew he had to watch out for his own team’s well-being—people pooping out early, signs of dehydration—and he found himself looking back frequently to make sure he stayed slow enough to include the stragglers at the end of the pack. He’d even deputized a squad of freshers to remain at the back of the group, to be certain that everyone felt a part of the ride, to cheer the last cyclists. If the community was going to embrace the hope for cleaner air, they had to adopt the concept of sustainable transport.
Lost in this momentary reflection, Khaneja was interrupted by the sudden presence of Jaitendra cruising along at his right. He looked down at Jaitendra’s bike—covered in dust and mud, both tyres grimy. But Khaneja knew it was a top-grade bike custom-built for his partner, and easily worth thousands. It just looked like hell.
‘What’s with your bike?’ he asked.
‘Like it?’ Jaitendra asked. ‘You guys got off to such a slow start I cut out after the first two kilometres, made a 20 km detour, then looped back to you. It was kind of rough out there. I miss anything?’
‘Something’s different about your bike.’
‘Oh, that. I distressed it myself. It’s supposed to look old and banged-up, like nobody would want to steal it.’
‘You succeeded. Only an expert eye could see what’s under the paint job.’ Khaneja said, ‘Let’s get a little distance around us and talk for a minute.’ They slowed their pace and dropped into a long open zone between riders.
‘About a year ago some Israeli guys showed up in Gurgaon,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Looked around, said they were interested in what companies were doing, talked about investing, met a lot of people, bought a lot of drinks. It was never clear how they came and went, didn’t appear to be doing anything illegal, I wasn’t about to ask government people I knew to track the passports. After a month I guess they got tired of us and stopped hanging out in Electronic City, slowly disappeared. Nobody saw or heard from them until a week ago. Then, chatter started up they were back in town, buddying people again, buying tequila shots, asking questions. You know, I never felt completely comfortable that our pal Vikram made it to South America last year. Got me thinking. I know I put him on the plane, I watched it taxi from the gate, he certainly disappeared, but all that trouble with him happened at the same time those shady Israeli guys were underfoot and I always thought there might be some connection. Maybe the kid actually got away.’
‘You think Vikram’s gone over to the Israelis and is engineering a cyberattack against us?’
‘I didn’t say that. But I’m going to check out some odd movements that my pals at the Cantonment alerted me to. You know that abandoned airfield near Nigohi? About a year ago it got lengthened and repaved, really nice job, perfect repair, all very hush-hush. As far as I can tell, not a lot of people are using it. They’ve got a nice system of fences and gates and road blocks surrounding it.’
‘You amaze me.’
‘Yeah, well, I let myself in and walked the length of it and there’s not a lot of tyre tracks. No night lights. But in order to use the runway they’ve got to be paying somebody to ignore anything incoming or outgoing. And the Gulfstreams they are using need to refuel somewhere if they’re flying to the Holy Land. The easy way would be to exit over Nepali airspace, touch down in Turkmenistan, gas up, then zigzag home. I’m just speculating. Or they could go home over the Arabian Sea, but then they gotta refuel in the Emirates and that would call attention to them. No, these guys are way too clever.’
‘You let yourself in and walked the length of it?’
‘Of course I did. How else was I going to find out anything? Can’t trust anybody these days so I scoped it out myself. That was how I figured out about the Gulfstreams, looked at the tire tracks. Unmistakable. Neha came along for the ride. I also need to check in with some girl in Brazil who Vikram was supposed to meet once he got over there. See what she knows.’
Khaneja shook his head in wonder, pedalled a little harder, advanced and Jaitendra caught up. ‘So what are you up to now?’ he asked.
‘Waiting,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Waiting to go into action. See ya.’ He stood up on his pedals, gave an energetic pump which powered the bike forward, and he disappeared into the middle of the cluster of cycles ahead.
Tel Aviv, present day
Vikram’s modern desk sat before a wide window which overlooked a rocky desert. Out on the horizon a rugged mountain range sprawled, surrounding the very dry landscape. The enormous sky was its usual brilliant turquoise blue. It was about 120°F out there as usual, and they had the air conditioning pumped up to Arctic Circle as usual, which was a couple degrees warmer than Deep Freeze. Vikram had learned to keep a shawl in the left bottom desk drawer, along with his decongestants, throat lozenges and packets of tissues. People laughed at him when he wrapped himself up in the shawl, but it was the only thing he could do to ward off the constant sniffles and sneezes he suffered since coming to this godawful place. At least the work was interesting, but he still felt like a fucking Eskimo most of the time inside the office.
Vikram’s agile mind wandered back to the events of the last year, the escape from Delhi on a private jet, the indoctrination into a new life in Tel Aviv. On the way they encountered no immigration people, passed through no official checkpoints or borders, went straight from the jet on a blazing hot tarmac into an air-conditioned SUV, and the next thing he knew he was seated in a modern two-bedroom condominium apartment in a gated community with CNN blaring in Hebrew on the widescreen television. He had thought they were going to throw him into a rotten cell and feed him on bread and water, torture him, but that had not happened. Instead there were fresh towels in the bathroom every day, and new perfectly fitting clothes waiting in the closet. Somebody always cleaned up the flat when he was away, and he knew they routinely went through his things. They had put him under the supervision of professional minders, who always occupied the second bedroom, heard everything, chauffeured him around, brought in groceries, never left him alone. Food was still a big problem, though, even a year later. Impossible to get a good curry, ridiculous to expect a decent roti, difficult to remember the taste of a paratha. He thought he would die if he had to force down another of those kufta things, or gag on another pita bread, or eat the nearly unpalatable shwarma. You couldn’t get a bottle of Thums Up, and all these guys drank was something truly horrible called Mitz Paz.
He knew they were censoring his internet. Sites where he couldn’t log on, emails that would bounce back, everything on a delay, stupid porn. He had easily and quickly observed where the surveillance devices were hidden in the flat, but he knew he dared not tamper with them. If he wanted to go out there was always some tough dude standing there just beyond his shoulder. After he went seriously stir-crazy a couple months back they started taking him out to nightclubs, he could order all the drinks he wanted, chat up all the girls he met, but bring one home? Nope, Vikram, cannot do. That’s a privilege you got to earn. Well how do I earn it, sirs, he would ask. You just do your work, they’d answer, eventually you get your life back. But when is that, sirs? You need to ask Yossi, they’d say, he’s in charge.
Vikram pushed away from his desk and thought about dinner. He could tell them he wanted falafel and they’d take him to the crummy little stand on the beach they liked. Or they’d take him to KFC, or for a veggie burger at Mickey Dee. Or his minder would cook couscous that tasted like cardboard. But it was just going to be another ugly meal, he thought, with the company of a couple of tough guys who mostly wanted to talk about soccer and tits.
‘Knock,’ said Yossi, pushing open the door, a smile on his handsome face. He looked relaxed. ‘How’s our prodigy today? Figured out how to conquer the world yet?’
‘Very funny, sir,’ Vikram said. ‘I am genuinely amused at your sense of humour. I will tell you I am again thinking I would like to find a girlfriend.’
‘Now that’s a good idea, Vikram. I’m sure we can introduce you to a nice Hindu Hebrew. What about one of the babes here in the office? They all look pretty nice.’
‘That is not funny, Yossi sir. I have slaved for a year now. I have done the work you asked, and I have shared my intellectual property. But my life outside this office is nothing. I sit at home at night eating crisps and watching television or playing Call of Duty. All of those women at the office are military people, you cannot fool me. There is no room for true love. They are all your spies. That one girl with the funny glasses only wanted to talk about American movie stars and I think sex. She knew nothing about code-writing. Also she knew karate and nearly killed me when I tried to grab her and kiss her. This is a very strange country. I do not understand your language, I have watched re-runs of Star Trek so many times I know all the stories backwards and forwards. I have watched all the DVDs of WrestleMania. I am tired of reading back issues of Wired. Your primitive televisions do not feature cricket matches.’
Yossi chuckled as Vikram finished his tirade. ‘Let’s have a look at what you’re working on. Show me what’s up on the screen, Vikram. Afterwards I’ll take you out for an ice-cream,’ he said.
‘What do you mean what am I going to do?’ Jan de Vries said. ‘I mean, are you absolutely positively 100 per cent sure?’
‘Either that or it’s what you white people call an Immaculate Conception. The difference is I have pictures.’
‘You wouldn’t dare show those. Is there something you want?’ de Vries said, his voice at least one full register higher than normal. ‘Please, tell me your expectations.’
‘Well,’ said Shivani, warming up. ‘One, I’m not hanging around in India for any of this, no way, get fat in front of my gossipy relatives, nope, not doing it. Strange appetites and cravings on public display, having to excuse myself to pee all the time, probing questions and rumours, not me, nuh-unh. Two, I’m keeping it, so don’t even start that discussion, Jan. Don’t even go there.’
‘I wouldn’t …’ de Vries attempted, but she talked over him.
‘Three, my own doctor, the esteemed Doctor Muthu. If I need him, you fly him in. And he’s with me for the delivery. Got it? Four—and this one I know I’m gonna regret—I bring along Aunty-ji. She’s been around for about a million babies in my family, and she knows how to keep her mouth shut. And five, first class only, no business class seats. Jan, are you still there?’
He was definitely still there. He said no way was she going to fly commercial airlines, that needed to be understood up front. No sitting with platinum frequent fliers and upgrade assholes. When she came to Europe, it would be by private jet with her esteemed Dr Muthu and Aunty-ji in attendance. She was not to return to that pathetic five-star in Cap d’Antibes. He would find her an acceptable apartment above Monaco harbour, new building, full service, four bedrooms, maid quarters. She would have a driver on call. And he insisted she also place herself under the care of le grand docteur Levy, that he would have a suite on reserve at the private Clinic Levy in the hills outside Cannes for the weeks surrounding her delivery.
Now Shivani reclined on her brocaded divan in the mid-afternoon, a Rubenesque Punjabi Venus bathed in sunlight that streamed through the vast picture windows, with the luxury yachts on display below, bored silly, 33 kilos heavier and a week before her due date. She looked critically at the extra large box of Teuscher Champagne Truffles which Jan had brought her from Zürich last weekend. She took one up, bit into it, left three-quarters of it uneaten, put the partially consumed candy back into its crinkled paper shell, licked the cocoa powder off her fingertips and frowned. Shivani certainly didn’t want to get into another tiresome conversation with Aunty-ji, who she could hear banging pots and pans around in the kitchen. Dr Muthu was away consulting a visiting diplomat about liposuction. The Casino had long ceased to interest her. She had watched every Bollywood DVD that Aunty-ji had brought along. She had shopped every local store, but what was left? What used to fit, now would not. What now fit, she detested wearing. Shivani swore to herself that it was the last time she was ever doing this childbirth thing. She grabbed for her mobile device, hit a memory button and the line began to ring on the mobile phone of an anonymous code writer halfway around the world in Gurgaon, third floor Talsera Building 3.
‘Please don’t call when I am at office,’ the nervous voice whispered. ‘You promised.’
Shivani’s screen went dark—blip!—recovered, came back. ‘Are you still there?’ she asked.
‘I am still here, madam,’ the voice said warily.
‘My phone has been cutting out,’ Shivani said. ‘I gotta get it fixed. The goddamn screen goes off and on, and the address book is acting screwy.’
Dink-dink, pip-pip, the phone said.
‘That is why madam is calling me?’
‘No, you fool. I’m just telling you in case we get disconnected. Where’s Danny Khaneja? He up to any monkey business I should know about?’
‘Madam, Raahgiri was yesterday. He has been out on bicycle.’
‘Oh, that. Nothing else?’
The code-writer took a deep breath. ‘I must ask you if you remember the tax preparation app I recommended to you a few months back, MasterTaxWallah?’
‘Vaguely,’ Shivani said, sensing blood. ‘What of it?’
‘Today our company has circulated a memo warning people to delete it, stop using it. Apparently it is buggy.’
‘Why ever did you advise me to use it in the first place, you insufferable cretin?’
Pip-pip, dink-dink, the phone said.
‘But Shivani-madam,’ the coder said, ‘it was a free download.’
Priyanka, like everyone else at Talsera, loved a visit to Ricky’s office. Unlike most of the cubicles it had a pleasant natural view, large picture windows which overlooked a neat garden in perfect repair. At first Ricky had left it in the crude condition when Talsera first took occupancy of the building, a muddy patch surrounded by scraggly trees overlooking a drainage canal. But as time passed and he had grown increasingly prosperous he devoted more resources to making the garden more of a private oasis. First he added running water and repaired the fences which enclosed the open area, so that no intruders either human or four-legged could get into the space. From the outside, forbidding tall grey industrial walls were all that could be seen, legended with ugly signs whose words and sinister symbols warned of dangerous electrical equipment within, a complete fabrication intended to further discourage scavengers and desperate people from violating the Eden. Then he added bushes inside which hid the fences. Beyond the far barrier the fetid canal still ran, but eventually dense growth obscured any hint of it from within. Ricky brought in a tree surgeon who manicured the boughs and now the trees existed in as fine a state of health as the brutal Delhi weather allowed. Twice a week a professional gardener visited, making certain that flowering plants brought splashes of seasonal colour to his view. A small oval lawn below was kept perpetually green, and recently he had added a classical white marble fountain in the style of one he remembered from the Taj Mahal. Birds often clustered at the fountain, fluttering in the cool water. Anyone who visited the office couldn’t resist staring outside at the antithesis of the digital environment, a rarity, perhaps the only such space to be found in Electronic City.
A year earlier Priyanka had successfully handled a sticky situation with an employee who had complained of a wild dog on her walk to her taxi pick-up point. The employee’s complaint had caused some consternation among fellow workers, but Priyanka had determined the girl was in the right, resolved the complaint to the satisfaction of the employee, thus gaining her a measure of trust among the workforce, who viewed her as their advocate inside the management layer. Ricky had decided to groom her for an executive role at Talsera.
‘I looked into Meshuga Industries, as you asked me,’ she said, trying not to stare out the window. ‘They have a range of tax preparation software products for developing economies. The apps for mobile devices can be downloaded for free, which allows them to capture a lot of personal data, which I’m pretty sure they resell. You sign up for something and you never get off their mailing lists. I have a team looking at the apps, and I assigned Adita to research the parent company, UltraTel Group.’
Ricky nodded. Adita was a superior researcher. She would deliver results.
‘The first thing she uncovered was that last year they scored a huge construction contract to refurbish an old airstrip out by Nigohi. It was really controversial since they’re officially registered in Israel, but the deal went through an Indian subsidiary. The story was only in the media for a couple days and then disappeared. Somebody pretty high up must have squashed it.’
‘Do you have anything on what’s inside the apps yet?’ Ricky asked.
‘I’ve put Adita and your old friend Nitin on it,’ Priyanka said. ‘Nothing will get by those two. Adita’s all over UltraTel, and Nitin’s got his top guys digging in the programming. You saw our memo telling folks to delete MasterTaxWallah? You did? OK. So I should have some more for you later.’
‘Priyanka, do you have any idea how Adita managed to get that information?’
‘I'm pretty sure it's illegal to possess, let alone read. Classified government intelligence reports. Probably better I don't tell you.’
‘Right,’ Ricky said. ‘Probably better I don’t know.’
Adita, hard at work at her desk researching UltraTel, was interrupted by a ringing mobile phone. She recognized the dialling code of the incoming number, her home village, but not the caller, and she scowled: obviously another detail about the wedding. She had by now learned that any calls from home not from her father inevitably meant money to be spent. Reluctantly she hit the green button and said ‘Hello?’
‘Adita-ji, it’s Pooja-madam from Mahindra Tractor. I am calling you from my office. Normally I would not call you. I was going to write to you, but there’s a rumour spreading quickly through the village I felt you needed to hear immediately. Everyone is talking about it.’
‘Has it to do with the number of dishes to be served at my wedding?’
‘Oh no, everyone was very impressed that your family was giving 30 dishes. Very impressed. And everyone is waiting for the announcement of the date. That astrologer your father named is always late. Your choice of the Lakshmi Gardens is such a good one. Photographer Ramesh is known for his excellent videos and …’
‘Pooja-madam, I apologize, but I am extremely busy at this very moment,’ Adita said. ‘Can you please get to the point?’
‘Young woman,’ Pooja said, ‘I call you as a courtesy, so do not be short with me. Just because you live in New Delhi does not mean you have the right to speak disrespectfully to elders. I have known you all your life, I knew your mother, and I am aware of the harm modern ideas can do. I surf the internet, you see, I work every day on the computer. I read the newspapers and listen to the new music, and believe me I follow the movie stars like everyone else, though I do not like it when they involve themselves in our politics. And I certainly am against much of what they show in the films today. And what has happened to dance, thrusting about like …’
‘Madam, please. I am on a very difficult deadline. If you could get to the point of the call,’ Adita interrupted. ‘I would be most appreciative.’
‘Of course you would be so impatient!’ Pooja huffed. ‘No respect for your elders, I take the time from my own busy day to call you on an important matter …’ Here she was obviously distracted by someone else in her office: ‘What? Don’t you see I am on telephone? Tell him I will return call once I am finished!’ Then, returning her attention to Adita. ‘Are you there Adita-ji? Here is what I have called to tell you. Do you know of Bansal?’
Adita said, ‘The moneylender?’ and suddenly felt faint.
‘Of course! What other Bansal do we know? Your father visited him to drink tea this week.’
‘How many crore?’ Adita asked weakly. She feared what was about to follow.
‘Not crore,’ Pooja said haughtily. ‘Lakhs! I told you that you would want to hear about this.’
‘Thank you, Madam,’ she said. ‘But I think I need to speak to Raj Kumarji immediately.’
‘Well!’ said Pooja-madam. ‘If you do not need to hear my opinion I say only good luck to you. We can speak more about this the next time you come home. Which will be when? Make sure you call on me. I will be extremely disappointed if you do not visit my house to pay your respects and drink a chai with me.’
Since announcing his engagement, Ravi had felt the extreme pressure of obligation to everyone: to his parents, to Adita, to Ricky-sir, to a round of vendors, and to the demanding Raj Kumarji, his future father-in-law. Compounding the equation were the foot-dragging astrologer who did not seem able to find a propitious date for them, the ordeal of selecting a brass band powerful enough to blast the evil spirits out of Adita’s home, a white horse that did not resemble an ill-fed and flea-bitten farm animal, and just how many marigolds were realistically needed to adequately garland the wedding palace. He had slowly and privately grown to resent the provincial people of her village, all ready to extort ridiculous sums—in that sense it was the only aspect with which he was in complete accord with Raj Kumarji. He also found himself growing impatient with his fiancée, since she seemed to be paying more attention to her work and wedding than to him. It occurred to him that she was spending a lot of time with the mega-geeky Nitin on some secret assignment. Of course Nitin was a bit of a star at Talsera, having played an important role in uncovering the dirty work of Shaitan Vikram a year ago. It especially irritated Ravi that Adita spoke so highly of Nitin. ‘He’s super-brilliant,’ she would say, ‘totally awesome smart.’
And then there was Mona, who always seemed to take the row ahead of them in salsa class. She had a particular way of swaying her hips that he could not look away from, even if Adita was dancing next to him. Mona had more modern style than Adita, he realized. Some days she would even wear short skirts, not jeans like most of the girls who shunned saris for business attire. He found himself wondering what it would be like to kiss Mona, or to run his fingertips along the smooth skin from her ankle to her thigh. He marvelled at the fullness of her breasts, and he was certain that when she said hello to them she took extra time to make eye contact with him, even though he still looked away after greeting her. While he felt an obligation to Adita, he realized that Mona had begun to occupy more and more of his extracurricular thoughts.
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Selected team Instagram accounts Jack Yan | Sopheak Seng | Elyse Glickman | Stanley Moss | Paula Sweet | Joanne Gair | Lola Cristall | Jody Miller | Jamie Dorman | Summer Rayne Oakes | Doug Rimington | Tanya Sooksombatisatian