LIVING We find Vikram in Tel Aviv, while Jaitendra’s enquiries into the air strip begin paying off. Travel editor Stanley Moss dials up the intrigue in his sequel to The Hacker, Hack Is Back
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
It took Jaitendra eight calls to reach the girl named Lucia, who lived in a one-room apartment with her infant son in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He had last spoken to her a year earlier, to warn her that Vikram would be contacting her. At the time she had shrewdly asked him what exactly he wanted her to do, and what was in it for her. He had answered that she was to report back to him if anything seemed irregular. For any acceptable or verifiable report $100 would be deposited into her PayPal account. For greater services a higher rate would be negotiated. She had asked him if he was interested in sponsoring her Brazilian bikini wax video, and he had politely declined. In the year which followed she had not called him, which led Jaitendra to believe that Vikram was laying low as expected, and trying to stay out of trouble.
In the background Jaitendra could hear the kid making noise—of course he had grown in the year which had followed their only contact, and Lucia clearly was navigating the boy and the telephone and her computer and probably cooking lunch all at the same time. At first she was not able to understand who he was, then when it became clear she turned on some children’s video which silenced the kid, and she asked Jaitendra why he was calling her. The Indian boy named Vikram had never shown up in Rio months ago as promised. But he had started texting her again about a week ago, as mysteriously as before. He said he would be changing his mobile number soon, and that she should not be replying to him until his new number arrived.
‘Why did you not contact me?’ Jaitendra wanted to know.
Because that was the way the guy had acted before, so it didn’t seem unusual or irregular to her, nothing worth reporting. Besides, he was Indian, and you know how those people are. Slippery. Flaky. She supposed Vikram was unreliable, like most men.
Jaitendra told her he would pay her $100 for every forwarded message she sent, and another $100 if he could patch into any texting sessions she had with Vikram in the future. He instructed her how to link her convo with him where he could remain invisible to Vikram, but follow the message traffic in real time. Was Vikram in some kind of trouble, because she didn’t want any hassle with the police?
Jaitendra reassured her this had nothing to do with the cops and he would be happy to keep her out of it. Lucia forwarded him Vikram’s two recent text messages and promised to do as he asked.
‘OK,’ Lucia said, ‘go ahead and pay me the money.’
The four soldiers who manned the small station near the Nigohi airstrip had nothing to do, and a lot of time in which not to do it. Their job was to keep an eye on the perimeter, make sure nobody was opening the gates, unblocking the roads, sneaking around, unless headquarters told them different, which they had not for months. Five times a day a team of two circled the area. The rest of the time somebody on duty watched the closed circuit televisions and the sensor monitoring board. They had become quite expert at a variety of video games, the game of poker, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. They unanimously agreed Kim was the hottest one of all and the rest were no-talent idiots or essentially perverts. Much of their time was spent in debating whether certain cricket stars were really dating certain Bollywood it-girls, or if they stood a chance with Kim.
Thus the afternoon when a new model BMW stopped along one of their perimeter patrol roads was significant in their otherwise meaningless lives. It was all the more significant because one of them, the eloquent Sergeant Khan, was absolutely certain he had recognized the driver, whom he claimed looked just like the famous Kargil war hero Jaitendra. It was all the more suspect since he was certain he had observed on the CCTV camera feed that Jaitendra was looking toward the airstrip location through binoculars, which he had hidden away when the four soldiers drove out to investigate. There was a lot of discussion about Jaitendra’s companion, a beautiful Indian woman who they felt was much hotter than Kim Kardashian. The man claimed his car had overheated, which they all recognized to be an obvious lie.
‘Which leads me to believe,’ Sergeant Khan said, ‘that our quiet little and seemingly irrelevant guard detail may be patrolling something more important than we understand. If Jaitendra-ji is interested, it could mean top secret stuff. Stuff that could lead to career advancement for a group of ambitious servicemen clever as our good selves. Hence, our task is to find out just what is happening here. The problem is, where do we direct our loyalties? To our beloved commanding officer Colonel J. G. Singh?’ The men all groaned in unison. ‘Or do we attempt to forge a bond of brotherhood with the legendary Major, whose heroic exploits could lead us to even greater glory?’
It was Yossi who had suggested the changes, Vikram thought, gazing into the mirror in his private office bathroom. Now he was glad he had gone along with them, though at first he resisted the idea.
‘We need to give you a new lease on life, old boy,’ Yossi had said. ‘Which means a new identity. It’s gonna take some visits to the doc, but I’m telling you he is the best around. You wouldn’t believe some of the people he’s worked on.’
They hadn’t been able to alter the colour of his eyes, though they offered him blue contact lenses, but Vikram thought it was too much trouble, a pain to put in and what if he forgot one day and somebody checked his new ID? So chocolate brown the eyes remained, but everything else changed. Yossi brought in a barber girl during his first week in Tel Aviv, and she came to the flat and cut his hair while he watched Ram Da Basanti for the umpteenth time. When she was done she showed him in the mirror, the sides cut short, clean trim around the ears, and stylish spikes on the top, and he couldn’t argue that it didn't look better. With his new Lacoste shirts and 501 Levis he was becoming another person. Next had come the plastic surgeon.
His ears no longer stuck out, his eyes had been opened, and he now had a nose closer to Michael Jackson than the previous version which might have been charitably compared to a flattened potato. They had done something to his cheekbones and jawline so that his face seemed longer. His mouth had been widened. It had taken a few months for the redness around the stitches to disappear, the swelling to go down, but he had nearly forgotten the old Vikram. The new guy in the mirror looked very smooth, very cool, thought Vikram, the new improved me. Very acceptable, yes.
Yossi opened a video file on his laptop, hit the play icon and the succession of images from surveillance cameras began to run silently on the screen. The officer seated facing it watched it intently, her dark eyes focused on what was occurring.
‘You can see, Major, Vikram’s exit from the transfer vehicle at the front of the building two weeks ago, just like every morning of a typical work day. He walks through the front door to the security desk, his handler waits, Vikram signs in with his magnetic badge, and the handover to the inside handler occurs on the other side of the barrier. Vikram and new handler enter the elevator—you can see him looking at the camera in the ceiling of the elevator car—now see them exiting the car on his floor. Again, accompanied, he walks to his office, enters the office, the handler waits by the door in his chair. Now this part is speeded up—Vikram spends the next hour at his screen, nothing unusual there, the handler still in his chair outside the office.’
Yossi stopped the video. ‘Seen anything suspicious yet?’
‘No, sir,’ said the officer.
‘Good,’ said Yossi. ‘Now watch this part closely. Vikram gets up, tells the handler he’s going down to visit the canteen at the end of the corridor, the handler says OK and Vikram sets off. But look here. He appears to duck in and say hello to someone in a cubicle, he’s out of sight for no more than four or five seconds, then back in the corridor.’ Yossi stopped the tape. ‘Here’s where the theft occurred.’ He hit the play button again and the screen now showed a second angle, facing inside the cubicle. An open-topped packed moving box sat on the desk, with a small flower arrangement next to it. ‘I’ve slowed this part down,’ Yossi said. ‘Vikram leans in and grabs a smartphone from the moving box, pockets it and steps back into the corridor.’
‘Whose desk was that?’ the uniformed woman asked.
‘A researcher named Dorit, low-level security clearance. She was being transferred to another office, it was her last day, she was in the cafeteria having a celebration with her colleagues. He knew she would be out for her farewell lunch for an hour. They always turn in their phones when they move offices. Vikram had approached her in the canteen and he knew how long she’d be downstairs.’
‘What good is a phone to him?’
‘We didn’t know. Here’s what happens next.’ Yossi said, and resumed the video. ‘Vikram walks into the canteen, which is deserted. He stashes the phone in the towel dispenser, grabs a bottled water, returns to his desk. Now I’ve speeded the tape up again. Works at his desk another two hours. Walks to the window, looks at his watch, he’s calculated every move to the minute. Returns to the canteen, retrieves the phone, returns to his office, hides it in the seat cushion of his rolling chair. Obviously he’d prepared the chair for it. A couple days earlier we’d seen him on the floor apparently adjusting it.’ Yossi stopped the video running.
‘What about the girl who lost the phone?’
‘She reported it stolen immediately after she got to her new office. We told her it was OK, that we could track it if it ever powered up again. We told her we would take care of it.’
‘So has he used it?’
‘Twice, two text messages to a woman who makes porn videos in Brazil, nothing suspicious yet. He’s got it hidden in the light fixture on the terrace at his apartment now. Doesn’t know we’re on to him. We’re waiting to see what he does with it next. I think he’s going to change the SIM card when he gets the chance. Then we’re going to learn something.’
‘OK,’ she said. ‘I’ll see what I can get from him.’
‘Good,’ Yossi said. ‘Be ready to leave on schedule, in 48 hours. Civilian attire, you’ll be chaperoning our boy in the mother country.’
‘Knock,’ Yossi said, in his irritating way, pushing open the door to Vikram’s office. ‘How’s our resident genius today?’
‘Just fine, Yossi-sir.’ Vikram said. ‘Another beautiful day in this furnace of a country. I am liking very much my new appearance, but I am not so happy with my personal life. You have turned me into a miserable hermit. And the food here still stinks.’
Yossi smiled. ‘I think you’ve earned some R&R,’ he said. ‘But first I need to ask you some questions. Have you been in touch with anyone from your past life in India?’
Vikram thought about it only briefly. He knew he had contacted the girl in Rio de Janeiro, but that was not India, so it wasn’t a lie to say no. ‘How could I do such a thing, sir? You have restricted my emails. You do not give me access to many websites. Nobody in India wants to hear from me, or they think I am dead. The only people I know here are wire-headed collaborators developing tax apps for corrupt little African countries I have never heard of. Everybody here speaks Hebrew.’
‘You could try and learn it,’ Yossi said. ‘It might be useful in your work. You might even find a girlfriend.’
‘Please, Yossi-sir, I can barely understand when people talk English. And a girlfriend? With these Israeli women? They all hate me. And I hate them.’
Yossi laughed his happy laugh, tossed an envelope across Vikram’s very neat desk. ‘OK, Vikram, you’ve earned some liberty. You’re going to take a little field trip.’
Vikram opened the envelope cautiously, and out fell a Serbian passport and a stack of American $100 bills. ‘Who is this Paul Gompertz?’ he asked. ‘Wait, that picture is my new face. Is Paul Gompertz me?’ He thumbed through the passport’s pages. ‘An Israeli work visa,’ he said. ‘Gompertz is permitted to work here?’ Yossi nodded.
‘Gompertz is about to take a trip,’ Yossi said. ‘Back to Mother India. But you are going to need an escort. Someone to keep an eye on you while you handle a small assignment. Are you cool with that?’
Vikram eyed him suspiciously. ‘Maybe,’ he said.
‘Tonight you’ll get back to your apartment and find that Aryay has packed your travel bag for you. Day after tomorrow you will be walking on the soil of your homeland.’ Yossi turned toward the office door, opened it, said, ‘Come in and meet Paul Gompertz.’ In stepped the Israeli Army Major, now in civilian clothes. Vikram’s new eyes widened. She was bodacious, curvy, dark-haired, so incredibly hot he had to catch his breath. ‘This is Riva,’ Yossi said. Her father’s a Sabra, and her Mom’s originally from Punjab. She loves technology. I’ll just leave you guys here to get acquainted. Remember, 7 a.m. day after tomorrow you guys are airborne.’ And out he walked.
They looked at each other for a few seconds. Riva thought: they’ve done a good job on him—he looks handsome now. Vikram thought: oh my goodness.
‘Are you really Punjabi?’ he asked in Hindi.
‘The better half of me,’ she answered, perfectly. ‘I like boys who understand computers. I think we can get along while we do our assignment. How are you finding Tel Aviv?’
‘It is horrible,’ Vikram said. ‘Everybody is pushy and nasty, they don’t know how to cook, they all speak Hebrew, and I must warn you I am watched all the time. I would like nothing more than a decent paratha. It is impossible to make friends here. Nobody is interesting.’
‘Nobody?’ she asked.
‘Nobody,’ Vikram said. ‘And forget about finding a chappati.’
‘I think you are very handsome,’ Riva said. ‘And I know you are a very important person. I find you very interesting.’
‘We are the only two people in this office. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together. Maybe I can show you something interesting.’ Reaching behind her back she released the waistband of her skirt, and it fell to the floor. Vikram stepped back and blinked his eyes. She pulled off her blouse revealing a lacy brassière and panties which left little to mystery.
Several floors below in an air-conditioned subterranean room two soldiers huddled over a bank of surveillance video monitors and watched the action in Vikram’s office.
‘Oh, she is starting now,’ the first said. ‘Her bra is off. Look at that guy—he doesn’t know what to do.’
‘He’s about to learn a lesson,’ the second said. ‘He better close his mouth. He looks like a fish.’
‘I wish it was me,’ the first said. ‘I’d be a good student.’
Upstairs in the office Riva stood naked in front of Vikram. He had seen a lot of porn, read many of the gentleman’s magazines, examined erotic Vedic sculptures, but he had never seen the real thing before. ‘Is that … is that … is that a Brazilian wax?’ he asked.
‘Maybe I can show you something interesting,’ Riva repeated, pointing to her left hip bone. ‘I have a tattoo, can you see it?’ Vikram said nothing, shook his head side-to-side. ‘Come closer,’ Riva said. ‘Closer, that’s right.’
It was a tiny four-character word written in Hebrew, which nested just to the left of the dark vertical abundance at the intersection of her legs. Vikram was now inches away from it.
‘Can you read it, Paul?’ she asked. Vikram shook his head no. ‘It’s pronounced hofesh,’ she said.
‘Wha-what’s it mean?’ Vikram asked.
‘Freedom,’ she said. ‘It means freedom.’
Mid-afternoon and a pleasant cool had descended on the leafy residential quarter of Derhadun. The yard was spacious and the lawn gave off with a particular iridescence that played very nicely against the tall conifers which surrounded it. Khaneja looked up through the boughs at a sky filled with billowing clouds and patches of clear blue, reclined his lawn chair back a few degrees and thought about the next sip off his Cobra beer. It would be crisp and cold and refreshing and quench his thirst and then he could drink another. It was his weekend at his parents’ house, far away from the issues of the city. He had many memories in this yard going back for years, climbing the biggest tree, tilling his mother’s vegetable garden, running with his cousins, and now tumbling on the grass with his own children. He was about to reach down for the bottle when he felt the telltale vibration in his kurta pocket, so he fished out his phone, looked at the caller ID, stood up quickly and walked into the little orchard beyond the trees, punching the receive button as he went.
‘Mr Hooda,’ he said as the call connected. ‘Thank you for getting back to me.’
‘You and your friends have been busy,’ Ajit Hooda said. ‘Calling attention to yourselves. A lot of people curious. This bicycle thing of yours has folks upset. You shut down streets, ban cars and suddenly the challan book dries up, if you get my meaning.’
‘I’m very sorry about that, sir,’ Khaneja said. ‘If we want to clean up the air we need to have some Raahgiri days without vehicles. Officers have to find other sources of revenue. Those are the people watching us?’
‘No,’ Ajit Hooda said. ‘I’m just telling you. Baksheesh numbers drop, I’m okay with it, I’ve got other resources. But the little people feel squeezed. It doesn’t matter. They’ll find new ways to extract money. They always do.’
Khaneja knew enough to keep his mouth shut. He had an unofficial and unspoken understanding with his father’s old schoolmate, so he waited.
‘Your friend Jaitendra probably visited a private airfield down near Nigohi a few days back. You didn’t tell me that, but I heard all about it. He’s pretty skilled, playing games with the boys watching the surveillance cams, driving them crazy with his antics. One minute here, one minute there, shining penlights into camera lenses, doing bhangra dance moves and then disappearing into the bushes, never holding still. It’s not clear how he evaded so many of the roadblocks and checkpoints, how he got in and out and nobody caught him. But they think they have a couple stills from a distance of him walking the Tarmac, not that it matters.’
‘They let him get away with it?’
‘They couldn’t catch him, he was too clever. What I want to know is why he was there in the first place. Because it kind of connects with who’s been watching you.’
‘I’m not getting this,’ Khaneja said. ‘Jaitendra is caught at some secret base …’
‘That’s not what I said, Danny. They think they saw him. But here’s the connection. The people who rebuilt that runway are owned by a company called UltraTel Group. It’s an Israeli conglomerate, fronted by an Indian company who officially got the contract. They’re the ones who have been watching you. They’ve bought off a famously corruptible colonel named Singh, guy I use from time to time, works at the Cantonment, knows how to silence air traffic controllers. They had people on the ground in Delhi about a year ago sniffing around. Apparently Singh is about to let a couple more unregistered flights into our airspace. Snitches who report to me said last time it was a small jet landing and taking off again quick. UltraTel built the runway, UltraTel dropped off people. UltraTel have been asking around about Talsera. Connect the dots.’
‘It’s not clear what they want?’
‘Up to you to find out. You look up UltraTel, maybe you’ll find out why they have their eye on you. Could try and follow their people around if you spot them in Delhi. They’ve got some connection to the Israeli military, I guess everybody over there does. Why they want to extort from you I haven’t a clue.’
‘I really appreciate your looking into this, sir,’ Khaneja said, walking back to his lawn chair. He looked down at the beer bottle standing in the grass. ‘I’ll tell my Dad I talked to you.’
‘I’m not finished, Danny,’ Ajit Hooda said. ‘You asked me about Bitcoins. Are you buying or selling?’
‘I don’t know,’ Khaneja replied.
‘Because your UltraTel friends seem to have some connection with Bitcoin wallets and mining software. You doing any of that at Talsera?’
Khaneja said nothing, took a swig off his beer.
‘One more thing, Danny. You ought to look into a guy they call the Skull.’
‘The Skull?’ Khaneja said. ‘What kind of a name is that?’
‘The name of a person who doesn’t like his identity talked about,’ Ajit Hooda said. ‘Among other things, he owns UltraTel.’
The first couple hours the tiny jet passed over desert and more desert, a little bit of Jordan, a lot of Saudi Arabia, and nobody talked. Vikram stayed glued to the window, or played Donkey Kong on his mobile. Riva napped. Shlomo occupied the cockpit at the controls, and Yossi clicked away at his laptop from an easy chair in the middle of the luxurious cabin. They touched down to refuel at a very small and isolated airstrip in Bahrain. A line of identical Gulfstreams faced out from a beautiful new hangar, all doors wide open, the jets’ elegant noses motionless as the newcomer cruised to a halt in the crippling heat. No terminal, no control tower. Just three guys in immaculate coveralls, an air-conditioned lounge with two leather couches, a Nespresso machine, a refrigerator stocked with Coca-Colas, and a bin filled with bags of flavoured potato crisps: BBQ, Masala, American Style Cream and Onion. A half-hour on the ground and they were back in the air.
‘Hey, is that water down there? Ocean? Is that the Gulf? It’s gotta be the Gulf,’ Vikram asked some minutes after takeoff. Nobody said anything. ‘Hey … I think we are turning north. Aren’t we supposed to be going south?’ Nobody spoke, and Vikram turned back to the window, smashing his forehead against the glass. ‘There’s a shore out there,’ Vikram said, ‘kinda north. Isn’t fucking Iran in that direction?’
‘Why don’t you calm down, Paul,’ Riva said. ‘Want some champagne? Want to watch a video?’
‘I’m not kidding,’ Vikram said. ‘That’s gotta be Iran out there, isn’t Iran a no-fly zone? I am getting a bad feeling about this.’
Yossi looked up from his laptop. ‘Almost time for me to change places with Shlomo. Listen, Paul …’
‘I am still Vikram,’ Vikram interrupted.
‘Just get used to your cover identity, Paul. We’re making a little detour on the way back to Mother India, taking the back road this time, need to sneak in unnoticed, if you get my meaning.’
‘Unnoticed? Does it involve flying over Iran, because I would like to respectfully suggest that we not do it. It would be a poor decision strategically speaking, Yossi-sir. And you know what is on the other side of Iran, Yossi-sir. Fucking Afghanistan.’
‘Shlomo’s gonna come into the cabin in a few minutes and work on his computer, Paul, and I want you to promise not to bother him. Let him work. Riva and I are going into the cockpit and fly this baby. We’ll see you later.’
Yossi opened the cockpit door and stepped in, and a couple minutes later Shlomo emerged into the cabin, stretching his arms. Riva scooched up her nose, gave Vikram a little wave with her fingers, ‘Bye, Paul,’ and stepped into the cockpit, closed the door behind. Shlomo got a can of Coke Zero, popped it open, guzzled half of it, sat down in front of a Formica tabletop.
‘Shlomo, sir, are you aware you have steered us into Iranian airspace which as every sane person knows is a no-fly zone?’
‘Yep,’ said Shlomo calmly, opening his laptop, plugging in a couple cords, powering up his wireless mouse, and starting to peck at the keys. ‘We took care of that. We’re gonna stay up around 40,000 feet, nobody’s gonna even see us, those Imams are a pretty friendly lot, we pay the price of admission, we don’t get bothered. You just keep cool, Paul. Watch and learn.’
‘Can you at least tell me what is the mission?’
‘I thought I already made that clear,’ Shlomo said. ‘Anybody asks you, you just tell them Paul Gompertz is here to introduce exciting new software products he is developing for taxpayers in emerging economies. That ought to shut them up.’
‘But I cannot talk about those projects,’ Vikram said. ‘You know I am working on advanced spyware and cyberarms, not tax products.’
Shlomo pushed his glasses on to his forehead. ‘You do not talk about those other products, no. Look, I have a few things for you to do in India. First, I need to see if you get recognized. People say, he’s back, then I have to kill you.’ He looked up at Vikram for a reaction.
‘You would not do that, Shlomo-sir.’
‘I might,’ Shlomo said. ‘Depends on if you behave. Second, I want to see if you can get back inside Talsera, re-insert yourself into their community as Paul Gompertz, a travelling Serbian geek. We had enough people download MasterTaxWallah to figure a digital way in. Maybe you could meet the right people, re-establish your friendships, get cozier.’
Vikram looked incredulous. ‘You want me to walk into Talsera and make friends, don’t you?’
‘That was what I was hoping. You’ll have Riva along, she’s pretty clever. She’ll keep you out of trouble. And one other thing. I want you to go in to our Delhi office and do a total security check, top to bottom. Make sure we look innocent as newborns, everything on the up-and-up, but completely protected and defended. The best firewalls you ever built, Paul.’
Vikram turned back to the window, looked down. More desert, then some mountains. Snowcaps. Shlomo returned his attention to his screen, where a colourful mapping graphic assembled, formatted, reloaded, reloaded again. Vikram put in earbuds, soon fell asleep against the leather seat back. But when he awoke he sensed strange motion in the cabin, his head gently bump-bump-bumping the window. Shlomo appeared focused on his laptop, typing commands, moving the cursor automatically. Vikram rubbed his eyes. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Oh, that’s just Yossi,’ Shlomo said absently. ‘Still thinks he’s piloting a Mirage. He flew a lot of missions in those. I think sometimes he forgets he’s in a business jet and not a fighter.’
Vikram leapt out of his seat and staggered over behind Shlomo, placing his hands on the back of the padded easy chair. He could see that some kind of parallel trajectories were being plotted. He found it hard to stand up with all the tilting and bobbing and weaving of the aircraft.
‘You’d better buckle in,’ Shlomo said. ‘This could get bumpy.’
‘Bumpy, Shlomo-sir? Why do you say bumpy? What is bumpy?’ Vikram plopped into the closest seat, fumbled with the seat harness, finally got it fastened, looked out the window beyond Shlomo, over the wing tip. ‘What is that?’ he gasped, pointing.
Without looking up Shlomo said, ‘Just a 9K333 Verba, the favourite heat-seeking surface-to-air missile of the Taliban. It showed up a couple minutes ago. Don’t worry, I’m talking to it.’
Vikram looked down at the ground, a particular colour of khaki brown, hard country. ‘Is that what I think it is below?’ he stammered. ‘Afghanistan?’
‘More specifically, the Hindu Kush,’ Shlomo said. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be over Pakistan in no time. Then it’ll get quiet.’
The jet looped left, then right, and Vikram held onto his armrests, his knuckles turning white. The missile which seemed to be flying in parallel to the jet swooped left and right, sometimes coming within inches of the wingtip, sometimes drifting out 50 m, keeping in exact sync with them. ‘Don’t worry,’ Shlomo said. ‘I’m on to it. I got this one under control. Just don’t want to get out in front of this bad boy.’
‘No, Shlomo-sir. Please, it is definitely a bad boy I do not wish to get in front of.’
The jet pushed on for what felt like hours, but in reality was only tense minutes, as Shlomo continued to concentrate on his screen, the single noise in the cabin the clickety-clack as he made adjustments. ‘Now watch this,’ Shlomo said, his fingers dancing over the keyboard at an extraordinary speed. To the right of the jet the missile broke formation and headed straight downward, twisting to the mountains below, remote valleys empty of settlement, absent of vegetation, sparse rivers, the occasional road. From his lofty point of view Vikram could see it descend—lower and lower it went until it disappeared onto a mountain top in small puff of smoke. ‘What’s happening down there?’ Shlomo said. ‘See anything?’
Vikram crunched his forehead against the window, crooked his neck to an odd angle, saw the smoke get larger and then a massive explosion occurred, a huge ball of fire followed by a great grey cloud rising above the mountains. It looked like half the mountainside blew out, even seen from such a high altitude. ‘Wow, cool. Was that missile carrying some advanced weapon?’
‘Nah,’ Shlomo said. ‘I was just waiting to receive the coordinates from home base. They wanted me to put it in an ammo dump in the mountains they knew about that they’d been meaning to take out. Ha ha, I used their own weapon to do it. We’re on the way out of Afghan air space. Wave goodbye, Paul. Gonna be easy sailing from now on.’
‘My name’s not Paul,’ Vikram said. ‘It’s Vikram.’
They had chosen the meeting place well, Jaitendra thought, turning his Beemer hard left into the wide lot at the front of the shabby roadside inn. Clever kids. He was impressed that they had reached out to him through a double-encrypted channel—the fact that they’d uncovered it was impressive enough. Had to be because of somebody at the Cantonment, he’d find out who later. The subject line read ‘Warning Light’, requested a meeting, gave date, time and GPS coordinates. Once Jaitendra checked it out he decided to go for it, so he texted back HANJI.
You couldn’t see the parking from the road, that was good. Isolated, surrounded by flat fields for miles around, many escape routes, smart. Deserted, nobody sitting at the tables in front, just some old guy in a white turban, squatting by the wall in the shade watching the occasional traffic, what passes for security in rural India. Behind the place he found a covered parking area with little tables off to the side beneath a stand of trees. Their late-model Tata occupied a parking space. Jaitendra put his Beemer one slot away under the corrugated aluminium roof, armed the alarm, walked around to the tables, precise to the minute. He saw the four young men who had visited him on the road near Nigohi, this time all in uniforms, sharply dressed, standing and waiting for him. They wanted to impress him, and they already had. Punctual, button-down, discreet, and a responsible location chosen, halfway between Delhi and their post. Respectful, Jaitendra thought. That’s positive too.
The head guy tried to touch his feet, but Jaitendra waved him off good-naturedly. Then, handshakes all around. They had hot chai waiting on the table, five chairs perfectly arrayed, and nobody was going to bother four soldiers and a city guy sitting at a long table. Even the feral dogs kept their distance.
They placed him at the head of the table and they all sipped their tea companionably, saying nothing, to the sound of cicadas nattering away in the brush. Jaitendra didn’t want to talk first; they had called the meeting. Talk or wait, another of those binary decisions. As always, Jaitendra chose to wait. He liked these guys, nobody shifting around, nobody slouching in their chair, they definitely weren’t stoned, hadn’t been smoking bhang, and definitely not wired on some energy drink or controlled substance. They weren’t cigarette smokers—no ashtray full of smashed butts at the centre of the table. Everybody was looking at him. Jaitendra sipped his tea. ‘It’s good,’ he said.
The soldier to his right wore a nameplate that said KHAN. ‘Thank you for meeting us, Major,’ he began. ‘We are all big admirers of you. Before we tell you why we contacted you, I must first ask you to explain how you got into the airstrip, how you breached the perimeter and all our defences. You evaded a very complicated system of barriers and surveillance devices. In order to do our job well we need to understand these things. How did you manage to get past everything? And then get away from us? We will be held accountable if the really bad guys ever get in during our watch.’
‘First of all, they were excellent defences. You need to know what to look for, think like the folks who installed it, something that comes naturally to an old dog like me, I guess. A combination of experience and recon. OK, it was all done with mirrors,’ Jaitendra said, and they thought that was funny. What he didn’t say was that it was all very predictable, all by the book, no innovation, nothing imaginative to it. Lines of sight, places to conceal hardware, hidden solar panels, obvious footpaths. ‘Maybe I’ll tell you later.’
‘And those were some very hot bhangra moves you did for us,’ Sergeant Khan volunteered. ‘My colleague’—nodding to one of the soldiers—‘recorded some of them. He makes amateur music videos. He wishes to know if he can use pieces of the infrared footage with your good permission?’
‘Depends on the song,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I have to clear all the music first.’
‘Sir, you are a great soldier and patriot. We never thought we would meet someone like you, never in real life. And we have no idea what you are doing looking at our obscure little detail out here, but we wish to be of help to you in any way we can. We suppose it is bigger than us. None of this needs to get back to the Cantonment, sir, unless you want it to. If there is anything we can do, anything, we would be honoured to play on your team.’
‘Whatever I say to you stays here,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Let’s understand that from the first. I can’t tell you everything, you’ll just have to let it unfold. Clue me in about activity on the airstrip, how and when it happens, who’s behind it and anything you know about the most recent landing. Are you willing to share that with me?’
‘Anything, Major. May I begin at the beginning? You know our airstrip was finished about a year ago? Whoever was protecting it moved out, and we moved in. Then we protected the technology people when they installed all the surveillance. Then they trained us to use it—it was pretty simple, then they left. Nobody ever comes out to this place. We spend a lot of hours online. Then a call last week from our chief, Colonel Singh in Delhi, you know him? He told us that at a certain time we are to turn off surveillance and ignore an aircraft landing, do nothing to disturb whoever gets off, and don’t let anybody bother them. So a business jet lands on schedule and some passengers get out, they obviously know the way and walk directly to the road. The jet took off before they even reached the main highway. We did write down the tail numbers if sir wishes them. A few days later you visited us.’
‘This was how many people?’
‘Four,’ the Sergeant said. ‘Three men and a woman. Dressed casually. The minute they get to the road an SUV pulls up and they’re inside in no time and they drive away.’
‘What did they look like?’
‘Two of the guys looked Indian, one very sharp, the other kind of rumpled. The third guy looked like …’ Khan paused, made sure this was what he wanted to report. ‘Looked like Michael Jackson. And the woman was very hot, super-beautiful like an MTV girl. Did sir want to see pictures?’
‘That would be very helpful,’ Jaitendra said.
‘The woman was not as super-beautiful as your wife, sir, but I have to say she was definitely hot.’ All three of the other soldiers nodded in agreement.
‘Far be it from me to cast the first stone,’ Ricky Talsera said, ‘but with all due respect you have definitely gained some weight in your newfound prosperity.’
Rajan Abraham leaned back in his office chair, patted his paunch and said, ‘I really ought to cut back, but you know what a good cook Nalini is. I can’t help myself, and they are always bribing me with food when they want something. Butter chicken is my downfall. The only one happy about it is my tailor.’
The antithesis of Ricky’s office, Abraham’s new office was light and spacious, but still crowded with papers of every ilk. They had moved him to a corner of Building 6, to a larger space with skylights and a greenhouse-style exterior wall which overlooked a walled garden. But Abraham’s office retained the pleasant perfume of an old bookshop. Every surface was covered with printed reports, bound documents with tails of coloured paper hanging out, memos half-read and left where they had last been looked at. Even his monitor was framed by leaning stacks of tomes. Stray sheets of printouts threatened his keyboard from both sides and he always seemed to be searching for his mouse. Two walls contained floor to ceiling bookshelves which overflowed with volumes, boxed files, records going back a decade to Talsera’s earliest days. It was an office where the geeks loved to hang out, since Rajan Abraham was notoriously informal, good-natured and certainly one of their own. His refrigerator was always filled with Cokes, his door was always open, and an air of joviality was ever present.
Ricky Talsera pushed the door closed and latched it. ‘I know you like to be accessible,’ he said, ‘but we shouldn’t really be interrupted during this discussion. I need to catch up, tell you everything Jaitendra learned. How’s it going with the malware guys? You’ve been talking with the other side. Are you making any progress?’
‘I’m actually having a pretty good time with their head negotiator. I really suspect I’m talking with the top dog. He’s got a sense of humour, and he’s tech-savvy. But he doesn’t know much about dealing with people. I’m giving him the run-around, watching what he does, we’re telling each other jokes, jiving, jostling, jousting. He thinks he’s making progress, I’m buying us time.’
‘You’re not concerned he will tire of the game and do something truly nasty?’
‘Not yet,’ Abraham said, chuckling. ‘First I told him we didn’t deal in Bitcoin, that if he wanted to get paid he would have to accept Ethereum, which is another cryptocurrency. I told him we wanted to keep a lower profile.’
‘How did he like that?’
‘We spent a lot of time going back-and-forth, finally he gave in. Then I told him he had to message us from now on using Hansa. Switched Blockchain ecosystems on him at the last minute. He got really mad at that. Now I’ve got him in a discussion of the relative merits of Mysterium and Aragon. This has given me and the boys an opportunity to dig deeper. I think the guy is operating from Ukraine. We started to analyse his code, and looked at his linguistics. These guys have all the fingerprints of that Ukrainian cyberware we saw last year attacking global businesses. I’m trying to figure out why he bothers with us, though. We’re not that big a player. What’s in it for him messing with a little fish?’
Someone tried the door handle on Rajan Abraham’s office, worked it up and down, clack-click-clack, rapped one-two-three, tried to push open the door, got discouraged, walked away.
‘So now I’m gonna try some other stuff,’ Rajan Abraham said happily. ‘He doesn’t know we’re deconstructing MasterTaxWallah, and he doesn’t know we’re looking at his malware. If hackers like him can fool AI systems into seeing things that aren’t there, we ought to be able to do the same thing back at them. So that’s where I’m going next with my people. We’re gonna try and fool his AI systems, see what happens when we do that. I’m gonna pretend his messages aren’t always getting through, reply to things he hasn’t asked. We’ve been communicating on a daily basis so he has a false sense of security. I’m about to drive him crazy. Let’s see how smart these guys really are.’
Ricky Talsera brought Rajan up to date about UltraTel landing people into Delhi via the secret airstrip. He described all four, warned Abraham to be on the lookout for them, and that their company had been interested in Talsera since the trouble with RoodInfo and Vikram a year earlier. It was all corroborated by Khaneja’s talk with Ajit Hooda and by Jaitendra’s clandestine work, not to mention Adita’s first stab at research. ‘Now we know the name of the enemy,’ Ricky said. ‘We’re figuring out how, but we still don’t know why. Let me ask you this: have you ever heard of a man called the Skull?’
‘Who hasn’t?’ Rajan Abraham answered. ‘You haven’t? I’m surprised, Ricky. Bit of an enigma in our code-writing community, owns a lot of technology companies and patents, shadowy past, never allows himself to be photographed. Operates from a super-yacht. He supposedly bankrolled one of those militias in one of the ex-Soviet republics, I forget which. I think he owns skyscrapers in Kazakhstan. Imagine if it’s him I am actually talking to. That would be a trip.’
‘So why would he be interested in a miniature tech company in India?’
Whoever had tried Abraham’s door was back, fumbling with the handle, knocking again. Ricky stood up, freed the latch, opened the door, and the geek nearly fell over when he saw the top founding partner from Talsera standing in the doorway in front of him. ‘I’ll just come back in a while,’ he attempted, trying to turn away.
‘That’s OK,’ Rajan Abraham said. ‘Ricky, I’ll catch you later. Come in, beta, sit down, can I offer you a cold drink?’
Once the SUV entered East Delhi, Vikram morphed into a different person. He was home, a place where he once would have yelled at the man pushing the mango cart blocking their way, but instead he let the man go. He did the same for a slow-moving bicycle rickshaw who would have previously aroused his instantaneous wrath. The SUV crept through thickening crowds and even though they kept the windows closed Vikram could hear words he understood, his language, his people milling by. He could read all the signs. He understood every shouted remark. They could not keep the particular fragrance that was Old Delhi from permeating the vehicle, and Vikram became more energized the deeper they inched into it. Every paan wallah he passed made his mouth water. ‘Turn left here,’ he said, urgently pointing at a chaotic intersection. ‘Turn left, turn left.’
‘GPS thinks we need to go straight,’ Shlomo said.
‘GPS doesn’t know my shortcuts,’ Vikram said. ‘GPS is a stupid woman. And she is very impolite. Does she ever say please or thank you? She has no manners. All she ever does is give orders, like a bad mother-in-law. Turn here, Shlomo-sir.’
‘You didn’t say please,’ Yossi said. ‘You have no manners either.’ But Shlomo turned left.
‘Maybe the kid knows a shorter way,’ Shlomo said.
Vikram put on his most ingratiating expression. ‘Here is a new product idea for you,’ he said. ‘A polite GPS. You could call it PoliteGPSWallah. She should have an Indian accent.’
‘Now we have a branding genius in our midst,’ said Yossi.
‘It might be a good product,’ Riva said. All the men looked in her direction. She hadn’t spoken in miles. ‘It would,’ she insisted. ‘Maybe he has a point. Maybe it’s a smart idea.’ She made eye contact with Vikram and winked at him.
‘I am a total branding genius,’ Vikram said. ‘You wanted to call your product MasterTaxPreparer, remember? You think any Indian would buy something named like that? I told you the new name and look how many downloads you got. Turn right here, sharp right.’
Shlomo swerved the vehicle right. ‘Can you give me a little more notice next time? I almost hit that pushcart. Tell me where you’re going.’
‘I’m going to take you for the best kebab you’ve ever tasted in your life,’ Vikram said. ‘A place where lots of Talsera people hang. It's on the way. Maybe we will find out if people recognize me which I do not think they will as I now look like the love child of Michael Jackson and Aishwarya Rai. You never went to Karim’s?’
‘We’re supposed to be going to our office,’ Yossi said. ‘You were supposed to take us the best way to Electronic City, not stop for Indian fast food.’
‘Later,’ Vikram said. ‘Paul Gompertz will get you there. See? I remember my name, sir. First I need to visit an important place.’
‘And that is?’ Shlomo said.
‘You’ll see,’ Vikram said. ‘Pull into this parking here. Don’t look so surprised, Yossi-sir. This is Jama Masjid. Parking attendant will watch car. Now follow me, and don’t get lost. If we get separated we meet back here in an hour, hanji?’ And he jumped out of the SUV, spoke a few words to the wallah and plunged immediately into the mêlée. In seconds, as he had planned, he disappeared from their sight. Yossi and Riva tried to stay close but soon halted in the thick crowd milling which enveloped them on all sides.
‘What do we do now?’ Riva asked.
‘If we don’t find him, we wait at the car,’ Yossi said. ‘Nearly impossible to locate in there. Here comes Shlomo and he doesn’t look happy at all.’
Vikram glanced behind, one last scan for the Israelis, yes he had lost them. He would meet up with them later at the parking. All so familiar, his territory, they’d never catch up. It was just as he remembered, only now he was different. Everything as he left it, except he sported a new face, new clothes, new shades, new shoes. He ducked down Paradise Lane, took several loping strides through the inky shadows to an archway he remembered well, turned right, crossed to the other side of the alley, located what he was looking for, plopped down onto his heels in front of the chaat wallah and ordered two samosas, salivating wildly.
The chaat wallah looked up. He knew the voice, one he was certain he hadn’t heard for at least a year, but the voice came from a face he had never seen before, looked like a pop star whose name he couldn’t recall, somebody his kids watched on television. Couldn’t be a famous person, squatting in a remote back alley in Old Delhi. ‘You remind me of a customer used to stop by,’ he said. ‘This isn't your first time at my taba, is it?’
‘Mmfrgblb,’ Vikram replied, mouth full, pointing. ‘Give me one more quick.’ But midway through the third samosa a shadow fell over him. He looked up and saw Shlomo glaring down at him. Uh-oh.
‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ He grabbed Vikram by the back of the collar and lifted him up to a standing position. ‘You think I couldn’t find you?’ The chaat wallah pretended not to see. He had been paid for the samosas, and he simply wanted the violent man and the rock star to get away from his space on the pavement. ‘You’re wasting my time. I don’t see anybody from Talsera here. What are you trying to pull?’
‘You do not understand,’ Vikram said. ‘Riva-madam and Yossi-sir disappeared. Shlomo-sir, the food in Tel Aviv is disgusting. Could you go a week without one of your crap shwarmas? I’ve been waiting a year for this samosa. Try one.’
‘Never you mind about that,’ Shlomo said. ‘You’re supposed to be helping us. Where’s this place called Karim’s? I want to get a look at it. Then we go to our office.’
Riva and Yossi fought their way back to the SUV, where they opened the doors and waited in the shade on the leather seats, sipping bottled water. An intricate chess game of cars occurred around them as the parking wallahs nudged vehicles around into impossibly small spaces, bumpers always touching. Outside the lot a steady procession of humans flowed by, men in white prayer caps, women with their heads covered, boys in oversize jackets, sawar kamiz and big puffy vests worn over kurtas. The inside of the SUV seemed like a sanctuary where the world came to a temporary peace. Riva leaned back, gave off with a breath of relief. ‘That was intense,’ she said. ‘I forget how many residents there are in this city.’
‘Over 20 million they claim, but it’s got to be more,’ Yossi said. ‘The countryside is emptying. You can see how people get lost here. So, how do you think it’s going with Vikram slash Paul? You guys seem to have worked up quite the rapport.’
‘You’ve watched the tapes,’ she said.
‘And read the transcripts,’ Yossi said.
‘You and I haven’t had a moment alone since we left Tel Aviv. What do you want to know?’
‘I want to know what Vikram did, how an Indian guy thinks different.’
‘He’s definitely a Vikram first, and an Indian guy second, Yossi. And he’s way more polite than Israeli men. Not a lot of folks can understand him. He’s … different. Maybe he’s special.’
‘He didn’t seem too interested in your wax job,’ Yossi said. ‘Didn’t spend a lot of time down there checking out your tattoo.’
‘He was more interested in my breasts,’ Riva said. ‘He asked me very politely if he could touch them. His hands were quite soft, he got a dreamy look on his face as he caressed them. He stayed quite a while.’
‘Yeah, I saw all that. But then he told you to get dressed and grabbed for his mobile phone …’
‘And we went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. He was hungry. The guy is ruled by his stomach,’ she said.
‘We didn’t get a lot of your table talk on tape,’ Yossi said. ‘Too much background noise. Care to fill me in?’
‘Mostly he talked about Talsera, and the woman named Shivani who was his boss and tried to ruin his life. We already knew about her, so I just listened. He’s a brilliant engineer, but there’s a child living inside. He told me he had never been on a real date, that tonight was the first time in his life he had successfully asked a girl out. He wanted to know what our sleeping arrangements were going to be in India. I told him I supposed we all had our own rooms, but it could change. He asked me if we could go out again, and I said yes, there’d probably be time. He wanted to have breakfast together before we started the trip. Made a big deal trying to arrange it. He tried to act like a gentleman. Not like those two Russian guys I had to shoot.’
Well, they deserved to be shot,’ Yossi said. ‘They got way out of line. I’m still sorry I put you into that situation.’
‘Yes, but Vikram’s different. I don’t want to shoot him. He’s kind of cute.’
‘But you didn’t take him home.’
‘No, that was enough for the first night. I told him I needed to pack. The next time I saw him was when he showed up with you guys at the airport. And you know the rest.’
They sat in silence for a while. Yossi’s mobile buzzed and he immediately read the screen. ‘It’s from Shlomo. He’s found Vikram,’ he said. ‘They’re at Karim’s. He says stay where we are. They’re coming in now.’
Minutes later Vikram and Shlomo piled into the SUV, and they quickly got back on the road. Neither spoke, but there was a palpable tension. An unmistakable fragrance permeated the vehicle interior. Finally Yossi said, ‘You had to take some paan, you couldn’t wait?’
‘I used to see people from Talsera at that stand,’ Vikram said. ‘So I stopped and looked around.’
‘Nobody,’ Shlomo said. ‘Was worth a look, but nobody of interest.’
‘And I couldn’t just stand there,’ Vikram said. ‘So I ordered one.’ He smiled at them, revealing glistening red from the betel nut juice coating his teeth. ‘Could you just stop by the roadside, Shlomo-sir, so I can spit out the window?’
They warned him twice to keep silent, to remember his cover name, and by mid-afternoon they arrived at the office in Sector 62, Gurgaon. It was a modern building, one of the tallest around, and they tucked the car into the subterranean garage, took the small dusty elevator to the lobby, then passed a security desk to reach the big main elevators. Vikram managed to restrain himself for the ride up to the 29th floor, mouth shut until they reached an innocuous door with a tasteless fake wood Plexiglas sign which read:
‘Awesome,’ he said. ‘Very cool, Shlomo-sir!’
Inside they discovered a neat foyer with a row of burgundy upholstered seating and a very attractive receptionist attired in a flowered pink sari. She recognized them immediately, gave a namaste, and buzzed them through a wood-panelled door into an area which looked like a call centre, perhaps 25 people wearing headsets, muttering, huddled over their laptops at cubicles. Nobody looked up. A bank of small offices tucked against windows faced northward. Yossi led them to a walled-off corner at one end, where a clean-cut young man stood waiting to welcome them, another namaste.
‘Everything in order?’ Shlomo asked. The young man nodded. ‘Anything I need to know, fires to put out?’
‘We’re still getting a lot of support calls about MasterTaxWallah,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s complaining. Mostly we can’t help the people.’
‘Then what do you do about it?’ Vikram blurted out.
Shlomo held up his hand: let me do the talking. ‘This is Paul Gompertz, from our Tel Aviv office. He’s a little enthusiastic to get to work, you’ll have to forgive him. Our resident genius. We brought him in to do the security sweep, just to be sure we’re not leaking trade secrets. You got my email about that? Good. Paul’s gonna be using this office here for a few days, so you cooperate with him, give him anything he asks for. This is Riva, his colleague. The same for her, whatever they want, you deliver. Yossi and I will be in and out—we have meetings to attend. Is that clear?’
‘As a bell,’ the young man said, extending his hand, which Vikram didn’t take. ‘Nice to meet you Paul-sir. I’m Gaurav. Whatever I can do, you just let me know.’ He opened the door to the corner office and stood to the side, waiting.
‘That’ll be all, Gaurav,’ Shlomo said, and motioned him to go. Vikram lingered outside after the Israelis walked in. He looked at Gaurav.
‘So, Paul, you speak any Hindi?’ Gaurav asked. Vikram shook his head no.
Sorry. Actually I’m Serbian.’
‘Right,’ Gaurav said. I really believe that.
‘So tell me,’ Vikram said. ‘What do you do when you can’t help people on the support line?’
‘The usual,’ Gaurav said. ‘We put them on hold listening to old U2 songs for 40 minutes. Everybody hangs up.’
His was a spacious office with a big desk, a couch and two comfortable chairs. In the corner where the windows intersected stood a Celestron 52306 Regal M2 100ED computerized telescope mounted to a sturdy polished aluminum tripod, brand-new. ‘This is gonna be your office, Paul. Try not to break anything.’
‘Awesome,’ Vikram said, staring off to the left. ‘I can see all the way to Kingdom of Dreams.’
‘But part of your job is to keep an eye over there,’ Shlomo said, nodding in the direction of Electronic City. ‘Take a look through the telescope. It should be set up for you.’ Vikram got a delighted look on his face and peeked in the eyepiece.
‘Hey, that’s Talsera Building 3,’ he said. ‘I’m spying on Talsera?’ Shlomo didn’t reply. ‘I can even see faces in the plaza out front,’ he said. ‘There’s the parking lot, plenty more bikes since I left. Holy shit, I recognize that girl walking out the door by the guardhouse. I can see the chai wallah across the street. I know those guys sitting around.’
‘Get friendly with the telescope,’ Shlomo said. ‘You might be needing it.’
Riva said, ‘What are we supposed to be looking for?’
‘For the moment, let’s just say you’re keeping an eye on who comes and goes. Try and find some pattern recognition.’
Vikram’s face lit up. ‘Awesome!’ he said.
‘OK’ said Neha. ‘On the spur of the moment you’ve invited me to meet you for lunch at our favourite table on the terrace at the Imperial, you’ve poured me a glass of expensive champagne, ordered me a nice meal and you’ve interrupted your business day, which is suspicious. So what’s up, husband?’
A polite murmur pervaded the terrace. Outside the tall windows palms swayed in the breeze. Sunlight turned the lawn emerald green, and waiters floated about refilling glasses. A paradise distant from the chaos. While Jaitendra didn’t know what was going to happen, he did know that with a bunch of Israeli ex-military sneaking around things could get dangerous fast. He wanted to keep Neha as far away from it as possible. The problem was, he’d already involved her and he knew her too well. ‘You remember that air strip we visited, right?’
‘How could I forget it? You had me drop you off and then left me waiting two hours with the car miles away at some crummy roadside inn while you were doing I-don’t-know-what.’
‘I was exploring, I told you that. The situation has kind of heated up,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Our old friend Vikram has been sighted in town. Suresh saw him in Old Delhi, he called Hari Bhayya, Hari called me. It looks like Vikram’s being shepherded around by some tough Israelis. It’s all related.’
Neha got a delighted look in her eye. ‘Really? Sounds exciting. That little creep is back? How’d he manage it?’
‘Khaneja’s checking on that,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Suresh was out at Jama Masjid and noticed Vikram from the back, visiting his favourite samosa wallah, said his silhouette was the same, he couldn’t lose that bopping walk, you remember it?’
‘But get this: when he turned around he had a different face. Suresh swears from the back it looks and sounds like the same person, same height, same build, better clothes, but now he has Michael Jackson’s face. Suresh followed him and his friends down to a skyscraper in Sector 62, and he’s staked them out. They won’t see him—nobody ever does.’
‘So you have no idea what he’s up to?’
‘Not yet,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Looking into it. But listen: I want you to stay clear of this one. I know you’d like to be involved, but the people he’s with could turn nasty quickly. They’re plenty tougher than a gang of Nigerians.’
‘Nope,’ Neha said. ‘Partners all the way, remember? That was the deal. I’m not letting my husband tangle with evil paramilitaries on the mean streets of Delhi, no way. I can take care of myself, and watch your back at the same time. And you know my opinion of Vikram.’
‘I was afraid that would be your position, I know you too well. OK, if I have to go into action, we’ll ride together. But I’m in charge, remember. What I say goes. Luckily you’ve really improved at Krav Maga. I hate to say it, but it might come in handy.’
The late-model Nokia smartphone rattled on the desktop, and the military man grabbed for it. ‘Colonel J. G. Singh speaking. How can I help you?’
‘Colonel,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I think it is time for us to have a talk. In person.’ And he hung up.
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