LIVING Vikram, disguised thanks to his plastic surgery, is winging his way back to India, along with his new Israeli-based colleagues. Jaitendra knows the plan is bigger than it appears, since why would one go to this trouble? Travel editor Stanley Moss continues to tell the story in Hack Is Back, the sequel to The Hacker
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
Kargil, July 3, 1999
Jaitendra and the kid walked across the ice field in the brilliant sun, stared at the cliff face ahead. Exposed rock going vertical beyond 16,000 ft altitude, clouds tumbling by.
‘It’s steep,’ he said. ‘I really don’t want to call in the Mirage 2000s first. Maybe the soldiers up there will abandon their posts tonight. Maybe they have had enough. Go home to their families. Maybe tomorrow we’ll find the bunkers empty.’
‘What are you going to do once this is all over?’ the kid asked. ‘You have somebody waiting at home, sir, a sweetheart, a wife, children? Are you missing someone?’
Jaitendra looked at the kid, a wiry little guy no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, ill-fitting winter gear, severe haircut, a shrewd look in his eye, maybe the first time he’d been in the mountains. They’d sent him to camp a day earlier, and Jaitendra liked to size up the new people, so he had invited the kid along for the walk. ‘I think after dark we can string a rope, somebody can find their way up to that ledge.’
‘I am missing my mother’s cooking,’ the kid said. ‘What they serve here has no taste, but I am usually so hungry I eat everything. When I get home I will never criticise anything ever again.’
‘A person reaches that ledge, keeps their head down, stays behind the boulders, could probably work their way up to the first bunker. You get that far you lob a grenade into one of those peepholes, hide and cover your ears, boom, then take it over. That would leave the other two bunkers for us to rush, then at least we’re to the top.’
‘The men say you know many things. How do you talk to a woman, major?’ the kid asked. ‘There is a girl in my village I have wanted to speak to, I must ask Mother if that girl would make a good wife. But I wonder what I say to her if Mother arranges the meeting. Perhaps you have some advice for me.’
I’m going to rig that rope tonight, Jaitendra thought. Do it by myself. Sneak up there in the dark and leave it hanging outside the bad guys’ line of sight, be back in my sleeping bag before dawn. He checked the approaches once more, scanning the rugged mountainside. Yes, my little job for tonight while all the boys are asleep.
Jaitendra could visualize his own mother, home in the kitchen, making pakoras, humming that song she always liked. The counter, the ladle, the smell of the oil. ‘Listen to what you just told me,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You miss home cooking and you’re thinking about a girl. You’re ruled by your stomach and your groin. You forget you have a brain. What are you going to do, you get out of the army, no more regular pay to send home, you going to sit in your mother’s house and eat rotis and write love poetry? You’re gonna need a job, kid, you ever think about that?’
‘All the time, sir. Once I’m done serving my country I want to buy my own car and be a driver, be my own man. I am saving for that already. Every remittance I send I tell my mother to put aside money for my goal. After this is over, if you ever come to my hometown I will drive you myself in my car, everywhere you need to go. I will say to people, this is my major from Kargil.’
‘Of course,’ Jaitendra agreed. ‘Once all this is over, if I ever get to your hometown you can drive me around in your car. But for the moment I need volunteers because tomorrow somebody’s got to climb a rope up to that ledge, followed by a half dozen of our best from the platoon and then we take Tiger Hill once and for all. You interested?’
‘If I do that do I get to go home sooner?’
‘I can’t promise that,’ Jaitendra said.
‘But it could bring the war to an end,’ the kid said. ‘Then we could all go home and forget about this place. I can be the first one up, major. Just as long as I am not the last one down.’ And he laughed out loud. Jaitendra took note.
‘You’ll go first, you’re certain? Okay, I am good with that. You get to that ledge, we’ll send some equipment up, then follow and we take that hill together. Tonight, write a letter to your mother. Tell her tomorrow you are going to climb a difficult rock, and after that you are going to come home. Tell her there is a girl who interests you, and the kind of car you want to buy. Tell her you miss her rotis.’
The kid kicked at the snow pack under his feet. ‘I’ll do that,’ he said. ‘But I’m going to leave out the part about the girl. Maybe instead I’ll tell her that my major and I walked out to the edge of the glacier today, and you said you’d visit our village after I got home and I, Suresh, will be your driver. That would make her very proud.’
‘Did I ever tell you how Suresh got that limp he walks with?’ Jaitendra asked. The noise of a jet taking off in the background obscured his voice.
‘About a million times,’ Khaneja said. ‘Where are you?’
‘The military base near the Cantonment. I just met the esteemed Colonel J. G. Singh. I told him we’re following some Israeli guys around town and for him and his people to stay out of our way. He was of course agreeable, pretended he didn’t know they had flown in, says he has no idea what they’re doing here, but he thinks it must be some kind of secret defence operation. He has no idea I’m working with his kids from the airstrip, either. I never told him how many people we were tracking. At one point he mentioned four individuals, so I’m one hundred per cent sure he knows more than he’s letting on. He obviously took his usual payment to look the other way. Funny thing: just before we said bye he asked me about Bitcoins, wondered if I thought they were a good investment.’
‘What’d you tell him?’
Jaitendra stifled a chortle. ‘I told him to buy as much as he could. Told him it was the currency of the future.’
‘That wasn’t kind,’ Khaneja said. ‘What if it all goes up in smoke?’
‘It’s probably taxpayers’ money anyway, so he’d just be putting it back into the monetary ecosystem. Nah, I’m cool with that. Besides, you think he’s going to listen to me? I guarantee he has a mattress stuffed full of thousand rupee notes at home that he doesn’t plan to touch. Thank goodness for Suresh—he amazes me, he was the one who caught Colonel Singh meeting the Israelis and pocketing a fat envelope. I bet it was filled with euros and American hundreds. Which was why I set up the meeting in the first place. What’s he hiding? Something to do with cryptocurrency, don’t you think, Danny? Even though that stuff’s invisible, weightless, can’t be tracked, isn’t regulated. Get a smart hacker like Vikram in there, it’s easy to rip off.’
‘I’m trying to connect the dots,’ Khaneja admitted. ‘Israelis, Vikram, tax software, the blockchain. Something bigger is going on. Let’s see who they hook up with today. Maybe we’ll get a clue. Suresh is still on it?’
‘He is, never fear. Suresh sees everything, but nobody sees him. I only know of one time somebody saw him, but that was a mistake, never should have happened.’
Khaneja knew the story well. Guy taking a piss at daybreak outside Bunker 2. Never should have happened. Shot Suresh in the leg twice with his pistol, didn’t stop Suresh. He rushed the bad guy, threw him over the parapet, dropped grenades into bunkers 1 and 2. Still walks with a limp, but they gave him a medal.
‘Is this Lucia?’ Vikram said. He had counted ten rings before the girl picked up the phone. What the hell took her so long?
‘Yes it is,’ Lucia answered, hitting the ‘record’ function. Jaitendra had instructed her how to do it. A hundred dollars a call, and she meant to keep him on as long as she could. ‘Are you the boy from India?’
Vikram snickered. ‘Yeah, I am, but I changed my name. Now you can call me Paul.’
‘Paul. I like the sound of that name. I’m going to call you Paulo. Are you coming to Rio like you promised?’
‘Yes,’ Vikram said. ‘In a little while. I just have some stuff to take care of here.’
‘Where’s here? Are you still in New Delhi?’
‘That’s not important,’ Vikram said. ‘Let’s talk about your Brazilian wax movie. Did you ever make it? Do you still need money?’
‘Paulo, are you telling me you’re interested in helping? Because last time I trusted you and you fell off the face of the earth. You disappeared right after you promised to come and visit. You said you’d help me finance my film. How do I know you’re not leading me on again?’
‘I’m really interested in your career,’ Vikram said. ‘We’re gonna make your movie. You’re gonna be a big star on social media. This is just the start.’
‘Can you send me some money, then?’
‘Eventually,’ Vikram said. ‘Difficult at the moment, I’d rather just bring cash with me, that’s okay with you?’
‘I’m a bit short this month,’ she said. ‘Maybe you could wire a part of it. Just to help me out until you get here.’
‘Um, I’m not sure of that.’ Vikram knew (a) he didn’t have any money of his own yet, (b) you had to jump through hoops to wire money out of India, especially if you were travelling on a bogus Serbian passport and (c) it would be leaving a clear trail to send her funds that way. But he had an idea. ‘Did you ever hear of a thing called Bitcoin?’
Lucia kept him on the phone another five minutes while he explained how it worked and what she had to do. After they hung up she sent the audio file to Jaitendra. Minutes later the money Jaitendra promised appeared in her PayPal account.
Bansal the moneylender assembled his bulk in his easy chair, reached for another pinni, popped it into his mouth, chomped on it, swallowed it, smacked his lips, grabbed for his chai, slurped happily. He was at heart, he knew, a sentimental man. This afternoon one of his favourite movies, Pyaasa, was about to begin on television. He had placed a box of Beeta facial tissues next to the opened box of sweets, since he knew his eyes would inevitably tear over whenever Waheeda Rahman came on screen. Bansal planned to relax in front of the film until his cook arrived. Later he would walk through the village in search of a conversation.
His mobile phone buzzed from his left side and Bansal reached around his abundant belly into his pocket, didn’t recognize the number displayed on the tiny screen, answered anyway. ‘Hanji?’
‘Speaking. Who is caller?’
‘It is me, sir, Adita, daughter of Raj Kumarji.’
Bansal smiled to himself. Probably ringing to thank him for his help. ‘First let me offer congratulations on your upcoming wedding,’ he said. ‘I cannot believe how time passes, that you are old enough to marry. An auspicious occasion. It will make your father very proud. Everyone here in the village is ready to bless you. Are you calling from Delhi, child?’
Adita took a deep breath. ‘Yes I am, sir. But there will be a change of plans.’
‘Aha,’ Bansal said. ‘Still more guests? It happens. I understand the groom comes from an important family. That often means extra names at the last minute.’
‘No,’ said Adita. ‘What it means is I’m postponing the wedding. Effective immediately.’
This was not the first time a skittish bride-to-be had delivered such a message to Bansal, but his agile mind went immediately to work calculating. If it turned to disaster he did not want to arrive unprepared. He knew that a month earlier he had given Raj Kumarji the first half of the loan, 17·5 lakhs. He knew that Raj Kumarji had paid a huge deposit to the wedding palace, that he had visited the tailor and put down a deposit on suits and saris, that he was shopping around for washing machines and cars. If Bansal calculated correctly, and he was not often wrong, Raj Kumarji had already used up much of the money he had received. Bansal knew that the first month of interest currently owing was equal to 1·3 lakhs, which if unpaid would be added to the principal. New balance: 18·8 lakhs.
‘Calm yourself, my child,’ Bansal said. ‘Many young brides suffer last-minute jitters. You must listen to your father in this case, since he knows what is best for you. He will make a beautiful wedding for you, never fear.’
‘Bansal-ji,’ Adita said. ‘I am begging you. Please do not give my father any more money. Tell me how much he received so far, and if he cannot give it all back I will repay it. I have savings, I have a job. Eventually you will get every cent back.’
‘I must speak to your father about this first,’ Bansal said. ‘My advice to you is to calm yourself, think about things deeply before taking any rash action.’
‘I do not think you understand, sir,’ Adita said. ‘My father has no resources. He is a gentleman farmer, not a man of business. How did you expect him to pay you back? How much have you given him?’
‘My dear child, that is between me and your father.’
‘Bansal-ji, tell me your understanding with him.’
‘The usual,’ Bansal said. ‘A loan of money, a fair interest, though one quite generous on my part as your father is an old and trusted friend. One I would not like known popularly as others would then ask me why they were not afforded such attractive terms. Normally I would have asked for more severe guarantees of security.’
‘Security? What kind of security, Bansal-ji? What do you mean, what did he sign?’
‘Nothing extraordinary,’ Bansal said dismissively. ‘I believe your family has a parcel of land near the railroad junction …’
‘You made him guarantee the loan with the property I stood to inherit!’
‘It is normal,’ Bansal said. ‘Happens all the time. Of course I would never call in the debt on him, unless God forbid there were extreme or unfortunate circumstances.’
‘How much does he owe you, Bansal-ji?’
‘Calm yourself,’ Bansal said. ‘With this month’s interest factored it is only a bit less than 19 lakhs. But I know he is good for it. Your father is an honourable man.’
‘I am telling you, sir. Do not give him another penny. We will pay you back, but do not loan my father any more money. Not another penny. The wedding is postponed.’
‘I shall speak to your father,’ Bansal said. ‘And I suggest you learn to hold your temper. A good wife obeys her father and her husband, not only her mother-in-law.’
Yossi stood on the roof of the skyscraper in Electronic City all by his lonesome. He’d climbed the last five storeys in the stairwell, let himself out into the hazy afternoon air. He turned around, looked in all directions through the amber haze at adjacent towers, some electric box buzzing from a bank of machinery on the other side of the roof. He didn’t know what it did, but he figured it might be emitting radioactive waves that could destroy his sperm count, so he made sure to keep his distance. He duck-walked along the edge to the corner, leaned over, looked down 34 storeys to the nearly full parking lot, wondering if somebody was watching him from an unseen window. There were hundreds out there to choose from. After all, he was watching people from his office. Other people might just as well be watching him. He crouched down and wedged himself into the corner. Nervously he glanced at his watch: two minutes until his call. He’d told the others he was going to get some fresh air, which definitely amused them, given the day’s air quality index, which was well into the red zone, the low 400s.
‘You probably are going to smoke a cigarette,’ Riva said. ‘Go ahead, go kill yourself. Don’t forget to breathe deep.’
‘He’s probably calling some woman and wants privacy,’ Shlomo said. ‘Leave him alone. Just be back in ten minutes, Yossi.’
Vikram looked up from his laptop. ‘If you want some company, Yossi sir …’
‘Not a chance,’ Yossi growled. ‘I need a break. See you in ten minutes, not a minute less.’ Now he stood waiting in the murky light, and true to the appointed time his mobile gave off with the drum solo at the beginning of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ from the movie Rock On!. It was the secret ring he had set just for the caller. Yossi swallowed hard, hit the little green phone button and the line connected.
‘You’ve been busy,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Stuff you didn’t bother to tell me about, you’ve been a bad boy, how’m I supposed to trust you now? You thought you could fool me? You’ve taken our prize-winning hacker, probably had him in your clutches all along. You thought you could change his face, give him new clothes, but you can’t change that walk, and you certainly can’t change that voice. So you’d better tell me what’s up, you have ten seconds. Start now.’
‘It’s complicated,’ Yossi said. ‘I was going to tell you, I just couldn’t get away for long enough. We may be the watchers, but we’re also being watched. My people have a big scheme in the works, harvesting profits from some trick software. You must be already on to it, MasterTaxWallah, we know your people are wise to it. It’s gonna be no big deal, no animals or pets harmed.’
‘And how do you know that?’ Jaitendra asked. ‘Where are you getting your information? You think we’re going to let you steal you-know-who, bring him back, mix him up in a brand new criminal conspiracy?’
Yossi said nothing.
‘Well?’ Jaitendra said. ‘You gonna talk or do I come over there and squeeze it out of you? Don’t think I won’t because you know I will.’
‘They’re waiting for me downstairs, man. I’m on the roof of the building, I told them I’d be back by now. I gotta call you later, man. Nothing bad’s gonna happen, I promise.’
‘I’ve heard that one before. You have three hours. I better hear from you. You know my number.’
Before Yossi could say anything more Jaitendra hung up.
It was the daily afternoon phone call between Shaalu Talsera and Nalini Abraham, and talk quickly turned to the available colours of Tesla Model S automobiles. The wives had decided to buy their husbands the new electric vehicles as gifts, but they didn’t want the cars to match. It had been an ongoing discussion between them and today they hoped that they could settle it once and for all, which was not about to happen.
‘Ricky wants to keep his low-profile,’ Shaalu said. ‘He’d be happy with black. But I still can’t decide. I mean, the Midnight Silver is pretty cool, and the blue would look sharp. His only comment was anything but white.’
‘Yes, I can see that. White would show every speck of Delhi dust,’ Nalini said. ‘The driver would be spending all his time wiping it down. I’m still undecided about Signature Red for Rajan. He will accept whatever I choose. Regular Red is a hotter colour. But then it might attract too many mercenary young women from the provinces looking to score a rich Delhi wallah.’
‘Don’t get Regular Red,’ Shaalu said. ‘Get the Signature Red if you must, it’s darker and more discreet. I do think my husband would look great driving a Midnight Silver car.’
‘Talk about attracting predatory women. He’d be beating off every Bengali Pushpa and Pooja in sight if you got that colour for him.’ Both women laughed.
‘Maybe it is a black car, then. He’s the CEO. He shouldn’t be advertising his success so loudly.’
‘By driving a Tesla Model S,’ Nalini said. ‘Tongues will wag no matter what colours we choose. Just don’t get that blue.’
‘And did you see the price quote from the trader for the home charging station? Twenty-three lakh!’
‘I’m going to ask RoodInfo head office to reimburse me for that,’ Nalini said. ‘It’s used for business. You ought to do the same.’
‘I just might. But maybe we should wait until Shivani delivers her baby. By then Mr de Vries ought to be feeling more generous.’
‘Any news on her pregnancy?’
‘Nothing today from my spies,’ Shaalu said. ‘You know they flew in her doctor this week, and her Aunty-ji has been hanging around cooking rotis for the last month. Shiv must be getting tired of walking around with a big belly and having to pee all the time. De Vries has her set up in that posh apartment in Monaco. She gets a fresh shipment of movies by DHL every week. As soon as something happens I’ll hear about it.’
‘You have any idea what’s going on at the office? Today I heard that Driver Suresh thinks Shaitan Vikram is back in town.’ Nalini said.
‘That’s impossible. He’s supposed to be in Rio de Janeiro.’
Nalini said, ‘Impossible or not, Rajan told me this afternoon some Israelis smuggled him back into India. They think he had plastic surgery and now he looks like Michael Jackson. And they’ve even got an office in Gurgaon. He says their cover is a company that makes suspicious phone apps. Apparently a lot of the kids at Talsera downloaded their malware, it spread something called Pegasus, and it’s toxic to their cellphones. It doesn’t leave a fingerprint.’
‘If that’s the case,’ Shaalu said, ‘they better watch out. You don’t mess with Jaitendra or Danny Khaneja and get off so easily.’
‘Not to mention Jaitendra’s wife,’ Nalini said. ‘Neha’s a regular tiger when somebody threatens her husband. I’d hate to be on the other side of that.’
Three-thousand two-hundred ninety-two miles away, Jan de Vries regarded the blue Mediterranean from his palatial apartment overlooking the Monaco harbour and pondered his fate. It had been a year of massive upheaval in his normally placid life. First, his long-suffering overweight wife, the Fat Berthe, had conveniently done herself in one night overdosing on alcohol and pills, leaving him single, obscenely wealthy, guilt-free and without repercussions. The vast amount of cash he received had enabled him to funnel money into his business and then to purchase a small, dynamic software company in India, Talsera, who had radically increased the value of his Rotterdam-based firm, RoodInfo. Second, his newfound freedom had enabled him to sit back and do little but count the fresh piles of euros coming in. And most extraordinarily, his Indian girlfriend Shivani was about to give birth any minute now to his first child, under luxurious conditions at a private clinic in the nearby foothills. A year ago who could have imagined?! In the background the noise of clattering pans filled the apartment, Shivani’s Aunty-ji, a nattering old sari-wearing crone, who refused to speak English or any other language than whatever it was she spoke, perhaps some guttural Urdu only Shivani understood. The old lady filled the apartment with the most unfamiliar smells he had ever imagined, strange noxious and peppery concoctions with unpronounceable names which she assembled from spices she brought in her tattered cloth bag from India. She made odd-shaped balls of fried dough which she continually shoved at the mother-to-be, encouraging her to eat. Shivani, accordingly, had gained a good 33 kilos and mostly perched on the divan behind him like a beached manatee, ever engaged in complaint. The apartment was too bright, too hot, too cold. The meals were too bland or too spicy, and she had inexplicable cravings for spaghetti Bolognese, sometimes at odd hours of the morning when Trattoria Ludovico was closed up tight. De Vries had taken to the unthinkable solution of freezing Ludovico’s take-away portions and secretly microwaving them for her, which the chef would have considered an insult and certainly forbidden if he knew. But de Vries privately delighted at these odd impositions. He found himself staring affectionately at the young couples on the promenade strolling with their infants bundled into extravagant prams. He inventoried the brands, the size and number of wheels, the clever new technologies and synthetic coloured cloths, and he fantasized such a scene, himself arm-in-arm with Shivani, pushing Baby de Vries, nodding to the other proud new parents.
When she thought of it, Shivani was making other plans in her own mind. She could not wait to shed this cramping, kicking, gas-inducing burden, turn it over to a waiting amah, and start to assemble its wardrobe and future. Her agile brain had already selected the possible Hindu names, the private schools, and even baby’s travel calendar its first year once Doctor-ji would allow it out of the house. She was already building stock portfolios and investment schemes for it. But other topics consumed Shivani, not the least of which was what she was hearing from her informed sources inside Talsera, terrified people who still worked at the software company and kept her apprised of any news, long after she had departed the company under a black cloud of scandal. She still seethed at the thought of Shaitan Vikram, whose stealthy campaign to bring down the company he had blamed on her vicious management style. Now strange rumours swirled around Talsera that a sinister presence had penetrated the company’s firewalls and lurked there, waiting to wreak new forms of destruction. Some employees had received odd messages demanding small payments to release their blocked handheld devices. A rumour, true, but a troublesome one for a stockholder of Shivani’s stature, and now a threat to the company partially owned by the father of her child.
An unusual sensation somewhere in her abdomen startled her and she gave off with a grunt followed by a squeak. It felt nothing like the odd kicks she now regularly felt, little jabs often accompanied by pokes from inside as the active fœtus she hosted somersaulted in the amniotic lake and executed some impulsive aquabatic feat which she could see pushing out below the skin that covered her distended belly. No, this was something different, internal, spontaneous, fluttering, lower down, and she inhaled stiffly. After a few seconds the pain went away.
‘What was that about?’ de Vries asked kindly, turning from the picture window.
‘A stomach cramp, I think,’ Shivani said. ‘It may have been the dual bati with garlic chatni I ate for breakfast. It was pretty sudden, pretty sharp. I couldn’t be having contractions yet, could I?’
‘You’re a couple weeks early,’ de Vries said. ‘Shall I wake the doctor? I hear him snoring in his guest room. Let me ask Mr Google, see what he thinks.’
‘Feels like a bad case of gas to me,’ Shivani said. ‘Is there any more of that spaghetti left from last night?’
De Vries walked to the kitchen and put the last of the pasta in a dish, zapped it in the microwave, delivered her the steaming mass, which she looked at, sniffed and immediately refused. He consulted his mobile and studied the answers. He frowned. Hmmmm, let’s see if she gets another of those in twenty minutes.
This can’t be happening, Shivani thought. Not now.
Thirty-one minutes later she had another, lasted about a minute. Twenty-eight minutes after that another occurred. Hours later, when Shivani was grimacing and wailing from her divan and the contractions were ten minutes apart, he woke the doctor and ordered the ambulance for the clinic. Her long-packed four suitcases had been ported down to the SUV in the subterranean garage, Aunty-ji had been hustled into a waiting limousine at the curb, and the moaning Shivani, doctor at her side monitoring every vital sign, rode the short way into the hills in a caravan of six vehicles, sirens blaring, preceded by two uniformed rent-a-cops on shiny black motorcycles who frantically waved aside all traffic ahead.
‘Four visitors on the move,’ Sergeant Khan reported by phone. ‘They’re in a brown late-model Maruti Suzuki Dzire, leaving Sector 62 right now.’
‘Stay on them,’ Jaitendra said. ‘My car’s too obvious. I’ll follow you at a safe interval.’
‘We won’t lose them, Major-ji,’ Sergeant Khan said. ‘And they won’t see us. I am an expert in surveillance driving. Once they stop I will try and place a homing device on the car. Then we will always know their exact location.’
‘Copy that,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Let’s see where their next stop is. These guys are up to no good.’ He telephoned Driver Suresh, told him to stand by, he might be needed soon. And he and Neha pulled their shiny new Beemer out into the Gurgaon traffic ten car lengths behind the soldiers. ‘Those boys are very good,’ he said to Neha, who occupied the passenger seat. ‘I like the way they work and I like the way they think. I wonder where our guests will lead us next.’
‘They’ve already arranged their invisible exit with the esteemed Colonel J. G. Singh, so we know a getaway is planned. What are they trying to accomplish before they go, I wonder. And when exactly do they plan to split?’
Jaitendra paid attention to the vehicles which surrounded them. They had moved into a sea of conveyances, blocked at their left by an enormous bus with people hanging off the sides and leaning out the windows. Ahead an endless mass of cars and tuk-tuks, trucks and mini vans, cyclists and two-wheelers. They moved, then stopped, then budged again, horns blaring, jockeying for position. Normal Delhi traffic.
Inside the Maruti Suzuki Dzire a conversation was in progress. Shlomo was at the wheel, Yossi to his left in the passenger seat. Vikram and Riva sat on the back seat, his right knee touching her left.
‘You’re absolutely sure the firewalls at our office are secure,’ Shlomo said. ‘Checked and double-checked them, right? Nobody can access what’s going on in our space, right?’
‘I told you I did,’ Vikram said. ‘The office is super-secure now. Unless somebody has put listening devices on the phone lines …’
‘You swept for them too, right?’ Shlomo interrupted.
‘Of course I did. Nobody can hear the phone traffic, Shlomo-sir. The landlines are clean and the internet is triple-encrypted. I even built some special patches into the software for extra protection.’
‘Okay, Superman,’ Shlomo said. ‘We’re counting on you.’
‘Alright, Paul, soon your big moment,’ Yossi said. ‘Are we clear with today’s plan? Want to run through things again?’
‘Sir, if we do, it will be the one-hundredth time you have rehearsed me. I am clear with the plan, though I still do not think it is a brilliant one. I have taken the Xanax tablet you gave me a half-hour ago, but I am still suffering great anxieties. Do you have another perhaps, or better yet can we delay this test and try again tomorrow?’
‘No can do, Paul,’ Shlomo said, emphasizing Vikram’s alias. ‘You know what we need to get done today, put a bug into that office, see if your brilliant work can access their intranet, make sure nobody recognizes you. Simple. You know the building plan. At some point you visit the bathroom you remember, install the directional microphone facing Ricky Talsera’s office, and you leave a bug in whatever conference room they use to interview you. You see if you can log on to their in-house wifi or if you can steal somebody’s password or, better yet, mobile phone. And you see if you recognize anybody doing anything useful to us.’
‘That is a fine plan, sir, but I am a coder first, and not James Bond.’
‘Time you started acting like him,’ Yossi said. ‘Or you’ll find yourself in a shitload of trouble and we may not be able to help you.’
Riva patted Vikram’s hand. Their eyes met and she winked at him.
As the car headed onto the Sikandarpur Underpass Jaitendra dialled up Sergeant Khan. ‘I think I just figured out where our guys are headed,’ he said. And gave the address of Talsera headquarters in Sector 18, Marudi Udyog. He called Driver Suresh and told him to park in front of Talsera’s Section 18 building and wait for instructions. And then he called Hari Bhayya.
‘What’s happening at the main office this afternoon?’ he asked. ‘Anybody known in the Visitors Log?’
‘Two teams from other offices. A salsa dance class. Some boys have booked the TT room from five to seven. A high school group tour. The usual interviews for code writers,’ Hari Bhayya answered. ‘IIT recruits, a Serbian guy, three people from Holland.’
‘Tell me about the Serbian guy.’
‘His good name is Paul Gompertz. He will meet HR team briefly and fill out papers, take a short exam. Then a junior will walk him through the canteen, game rooms and office spaces.’
‘I want you to watch him discreetly,’ Jaitendra said. ‘He interests me. Don’t let him see you, keep an eye on him. When he leaves, give him one of our special goody bags, you understand? The ones you and I prepared for unusual moments like these. He may be an unwanted intruder. Theek hai?’
‘Hanji, sir,’ Hari Bhayya said. ‘I understand completely. One of our special goody bags.’ And Hari Bhayya—uncharacteristically—laughed.
Just around the corner from the State Bank of India building on Sub Major Laxmi Chand Road a very impatient Yossi waited. He had been nervously walking the length of the block, up and down, for nearly an hour. He’d stopped at a chai wallah, but couldn’t even finish his cup. When he caught sight of Vikram and Riva rounding the right turn in his direction he called Shlomo, who was parked close by, and at exactly the moment when the three reunited on the street the brown late-model Maruti Suzuki Dzire pulled up next to them. They flung open the doors, jumped into the sedan, and Shlomo headed the car back toward Sector 62.
‘Well?’ he said. ‘How did it go?’
Yossi fumbled on the front seat with his laptop, a single earbud in his left ear. ‘Everything seems to be working,’ he marvelled. ‘We’re getting signal from everything. I can hear Ricky Talsera’s secretary talking to her mother. Some kids are having a meeting about browsers in the conference room. And I’m hoping we can access Talsera’s intranet. Brilliant work, Paul,’ he said. ‘Did you manage to steal anybody’s cellphone?’
Vikram held up a black Iphone 8. ‘Only this one,’ he smirked.
Shlomo smiled broadly. ‘Double-oh-seven,’ he said. ‘Amazing. What about you, Riva? You pick up any intelligence?’
‘I definitely learned a lot about cricket scores,’ she said. ‘Those guys sitting around at the tea dhaba are rabid fans. The talk got pretty heated. But no, nothing about what’s going on inside Talsera. Two of the guys tried to hit on me, but I told them I had a boyfriend, and the chai wallah told them to leave me alone. He actually was quite nice, the wallah. I hated lying to him, and he told me he hoped my boyfriend had a good interview. He said Talsera was a great place to work.’
‘They gave me a bag of goodies after the interview,’ Vikram said. ‘They weren’t doing that back when I first got hired.’ He opened the imprinted blue canvas tote and looked at the contents. ‘Wow.’
Two cars ahead of them, Driver Suresh kept them in sight in his side mirror. Three cars behind, the four soldiers followed in quiet pursuit. Sergeant Khan telephoned Jaitendra.
‘We are following them,’ he said. ‘I think they are going in the direction of their office.’
‘Did you manage to put a device on their car?’
‘Yes, major, we did. First they dropped off Michael Jackson and the bodacious girl. He went to the security hut and then inside the building. She went to the tea dhaba across the way. She sat there the whole time and waited for him. I left one of our guys there to watch her …’
‘She do anything suspicious?’
‘No, sir, but some boys tried to flirt with her. The wallah wasn’t having any of that, he told them to leave her alone, so she mostly stayed on her cellphone while they argued about test matches. We followed the Maruti to a parking spot a few blocks away, distracted the driver and got a bug on their car, rear bumper underside left. Then we waited until Michael Jackson came out of the building an hour later. He and the babe walked to a bend in the road, met the man who was waiting, and immediately the Maruti picked them up. Now they’re travelling in the direction of Sector 62. Sir, when they came around the corner Michael Jackson and the hot babe were holding hands.’
‘Stay with them,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’ He and Neha pulled up to Talsera’s office and stashed the Beemer in the parking lot. Jaitendra went to meet Hari Bhayya, and Neha crossed over to the chai wallah.
‘It was good you warned me when you did,’ Hari Bhayya said to Jaitendra. They sat in a private conference room on the first floor. Amber light streamed through the glass bricks of the front-facing wall. ‘I was down at the guard box outside looking at the logbook when you called. I hurried over to the security command post and stayed there. If you had called me a minute later, the false Serbian Gompertz would have seen me. I watched him over the CCTVs, every minute of his visit. I am absolutely certain, sir, that it is the Shaitan Vikram who has returned, just with a new face and clothing. Everything else about him is the same. I even checked his handwriting against old documents on file. It is definitely Vikram.’
‘Tell me everything he did,’ Jaitendra said.
‘First he signed in,’ Hari Bhayya said. ‘Used a Serbian passport as his ID. Security Guard no. 8 Raheem told me he had been dropped off at the gate—two men in the front seat of a brown car, Vikram and a girl got out. The girl went across the road to the chai wallah, Vikram checked in at the guard box. His India visa looked correct, so they let him go to reception, where a junior met him. He put a mobile phone and his passport onto the little pink plastic tray and walked through the metal detector. No alarms, sir. He was carrying a backpack which went through the X-ray okay. He had what looked like an unopened box of earbuds in the pack. The junior walked him to conference room 3 next door, talked to him about Talsera for a few minutes, and left him with some papers to sign, our usual NDA, and the log-in for the ten-question test for his level. It was then that he took out the earbud box and I saw him place this …’—here Hari Bhayya put a small gold disc about a ¾-inch in diameter on the tabletop—‘under his chair. Don’t worry, sir, I have discovered the frequency and am jamming the device, sending it theme music from Ram Da Basanti. We can reactivate it anytime we want, sir. You just have to tell me what to do.’
‘He’s been hearing the music for how long now?’
‘Maybe a half-hour,’ Hari Bhayya said.
‘Send him live signal from an empty conference room in a few minutes, keep it empty and we’ll figure out some cool entertainment for him later. I assume he aced the test.’ Hari Bhayya nodded yes. ‘Then what happened?’
‘Achaa, the junior returned and he asked to visit the restroom. People sometimes get lost, Shaitan Vikram knew the way. He carried his backpack along. I caught him on an outdoor camera, leaning out the window, placing this …’—here Hari Bhayya set a small directional microphone on the tabletop— ‘under the window sill. It was aimed at Ricky-sir’s office.’
Jaitendra picked it up, turned it over in his hands. ‘Israeli manufacture,’ he said. ‘You’re sending it a dummy signal now?’
‘Theme music from Bol Bachchan. Ricky is away from the office and his secretary has gone home. There is nothing sensitive going to be discussed there for a few days.’
‘Put it back where he left it for the time being. We’ll figure out something if we need to later.’
‘Hanji, sir,’ said Hari Bhayya.
‘Did anything else happen?’
‘Two things, Jaitendra-ji. First, during his tour he kept getting text messages, and he looked over a lot of people’s shoulders. Then just before he left, he stole somebody’s mobile phone.’
‘He did what?’ Jaitendra asked.
‘Stole a mobile phone off a desktop. Some boy was turned away from it. I have it on the surveillance camera, very quick, put it in his backpack and left the building.’
‘You have the phone number?’
‘Oh yes,’ Hari Bhayya said. ‘A very unhappy person whose Iphone 8 is missing, but I have all the security information. We’re tracking it now.’
Jaitendra smiled. ‘Now we have work to do,’ he said. ‘Now we figure out what these guys are really up to.’
‘You couldn’t get into the intranet, then,’ Shlomo said. ‘And you didn’t get a password.’
‘We tried,’ Riva said. ‘I was texting him from outside, but they had him moving pretty fast on his tour.’
‘I never had the time,’ Vikram said. ‘But I got an Iphone 8. Give me an hour with it and I bet I can find the password.’
‘We’ll give it to the boys in Tel Aviv,’ said Shlomo. ‘Let them play with it. Now we got to get out of town. I’m going to order the jet for tomorrow.’
Vikram peered into the blue canvas bag. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Cool stuff. A blue Talsera hat …’
‘I want to wear that,’ Riva said, grabbing it and putting it on, then turned it backwards.
‘Not in public you aren’t,’ Shlomo said.
‘I’m keeping it,’ she said. ‘Can I, Paul?’
‘Yeah,’ Vikram said, ‘Of course you can. And look here, a T-shirt and a branded flash drive—cool, they’re giving 8 Gbyte drives as a gift. Amazing. Here’s a book, A Guide to Talsera Style. I think they want to hire me, ha ha! A flyer about Raahgiri. And a corporate brochure about their projects. Nice photography.’
‘All right,’ said Shlomo. ‘Enough of that. We’re back at the office now, and we need to close up shop.’
‘Can I please get some real food before we go?’
‘What’s coming in on the transmitters, Yossi?’
‘Nothing from the conference room. Somebody’s playing music. People walking in the hall outside Ricky Talsera’s door. Sounds like the office has closed down for the night.’
‘So I’m back up on the roof,’ Yossi said. ‘I gotta be quick about this. UltraTel owns Meshuga Industries, who made MasterTaxWallah. Anybody downloads the app gets a virus that locks down their operating system. We send them a ransom demand. They pay, we unlock the phone. They don’t, tough luck. Plus we’ve harvested all their data.’
‘I know all this already,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Why are you guys here, and why did you bring along Mr Wonderful?’
‘He’s checking all the firewalls at our office, making sure people can’t hack into us. We’ve collected about US$15 million already, and soon we’re going to disappear.’
‘Nope, not convinced,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You’re not doing this for a lousy fifteen million. Something else is happening.’
‘Man, I swear to you that is the scam. We have three other apps ready to release as well. The tax planner’s only a seasonal product, just to test the waters. The others are evergreen: a project manager, a fitness app and a sport nut tracker. We’ll make a couple hundred million on those all over Asia, same deal.’
‘Did you ever consider another line of work? Does it occur to you that me and my friends are going to do everything in our power to shut you down?’
‘Yeah, well, give it your best shot, man. Me and my people are going to be out of here tomorrow. Come to Israel, I’ll show you a good time.’
‘You’ll be hearing from me,’ Jaitendra said.
‘Don’t count on it,’ Yossi said.
‘So what have we got?’ Khaneja asked. He, Jaitendra, Neha and Hari Bhayya sat in the executive conference room in Talsera Building 3. They’d arranged a hurried meeting to catch up on the Israeli incursion. Jaitendra had updated them on the conversations with Yossi. And Hari Bhayya had reported on the status of the bugs Vikram had planted. On the table in front of them an open laptop displayed the status of their surveillance. Somewhere out in Gurgaon, Driver Suresh sat patiently, invisibly in his car. The four soldiers were posted near the UltraTel office awaiting instructions.
‘First, the car is still in the garage in Sector 62,’ said Hari Bhayya. ‘Transmitter signal loud and clear.’
‘Suresh has his eye on the garage exit,’ Jaitendra said. ‘They won’t leave in the same car without us seeing. The bug sewn into the goody bag is working perfectly. Well done, Hari Bhayya. They have no idea we’re on to them. They were talking in the car about how successful Vikram was. Vikram liked the pictures in the new corporate brochure. Sounds like the head guy has arranged their exit flight for tomorrow. They’re going to use the Iphone Vikram lifted to break into our intranet. The beacon in the button on the top of the Talsera cap is working too. Girl wants to wear it. We’ll know where he is as long as they stay together and she wears the cap. Vikram hasn’t plugged the flash drive into his computer yet, but if he does we’ll see it, and we’ll be able to suck everything out of his hard drive when he goes online.’
‘Excellent,’ Danny Khaneja said. ‘Are we going to try and collect Vikram now and make him tell us everything?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Those Israelis are a pretty tough lot, probably all ex-commandos. It could be a big risk to try some action against them.’
‘Eight of us, not including Hari Bhayya and Driver Suresh?’ Neha said. ‘That’s eight against four. And one of their four, Vikram, would be worthless. I say we move on them when they leave their office.’
‘I am supposed to keep you out of harm’s way, wife,’ Jaitendra said. ‘It’s not time to pick a fight yet.’
Elsewhere in a dim private office two floors above them in Building 3, Nitin and Adita pored over the UltraTel database, shoulder-to-shoulder, laptops unfolded in front of each, with a large screen displaying behind. On the screen UltraTel’s Israeli-based server assembled, refreshed, assembled again.
‘Hello, Watson. What have we here?’ He had taken to calling her Watson in tribute to the IBM supercomputer of the same name. Sometimes she called him Holmes, their own private joke. Adita was looking at UltraTel’s banking. Nitin was buried deep in MasterTaxWallah’s insidious code. ‘Look at this, Watson, and tell me if you see what I see.’ He turned his laptop towards her and they both leaned in to it.
‘It looks like a BRS to me,’ she said. ‘By George, Holmes, I think you’ve found the kill switch.’
‘Elementary,’ Nitin said. ‘You have a grand gift of silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.’
Adita thought: I enjoy his little jokes so much. My fiancé Ravi would never say anything like that. Nitin may be a nerd, but he is super cute. But she said nothing. Instead she wondered how long she could postpone her forthcoming wedding. She had already informed the money-lender Bansal. Now she would need to rethink the marriage entirely. While Ravi was a nice enough boy, Nitin had a certain energy to him, a curiosity, an awareness. She wondered if perhaps Nitin was a better choice as a life companion.
‘Let’s not tell anyone about this yet,’ Nitin was saying. ‘Until we’re sure that’s what it is. But if we can shut down the whole thing, my goodness. I need to show you something else.’ He moved his cursor over to the large screen, clicked at a few pop-ups, entered some code and a new window appeared. ‘Look at this: Bitcoin wallets and mining software. What do you make of this?’
Adita studied the screen for a minute. ‘Something short of three billion dollars?’ she said.
Gaurav knocked tentatively, opened the door gently after somebody said ‘Come,’ and then hesitated on the way into the corner office, tablet in hand. He immediately took note of the unusual activity within.
Shlomo pushed folders into a briefcase. He opened and shut each drawer of the desk, came back to his laptop, hit a few keys, grabbed a stack of documents from the top of the desk and began to sort through them. Some he added to his briefcase, others he threw in the trash. Occasionally he would use the noisy mechanical shredder attached to a dustbin in the corner.
Nobody acknowledged his presence. ‘Got a minute, Paul?’ Gaurav finally asked, staring at the guy who resembled Michael Jackson, who hovered over his desk in unbroken concentration.
Vikram looked up from his laptop. His screen had been filled with strange lines of code which nobody but himself would ever understand, not even Riva. At the bigger desk, Shlomo pecked at his keyboard, apparently absorbed by his own business. He pretended not to follow the interaction in progress. Yossi turned his attention to the doorway.
‘Yes?’ Vikram finally said. Riva, at his side, stopped what she was doing.
Gaurav held up his tablet. ‘Could you have a look at this translated text for me? I’m suspicious it’s not quite right. It’s Serbian, correct? Is the translation a good one, do you think?’
Vikram froze. He couldn’t even tell what language it was, that was for sure. He didn’t reach for the tablet. ‘Ummmm,’ he said, looking away. Locked eyes with Shlomo.
Shlomo said, ‘Paul’s really busy at the moment, Gaurav. Something time-critical, a big query from the home office. Perhaps it can wait.’
‘Yeah, sure, of course,’ Gaurav said. ‘I just thought …’
‘Stop thinking,’ Yossi said. ‘You think too much.’ He continued dismantling the Celestron 52306 Regal M2 100ED computerized telescope on the fancy tripod, and placed the first piece into an open polished aluminium case.
‘He’s super busy,’ Riva said. ‘Something important we can’t really talk about.’
Gaurav nodded, closed the door quietly and slinked away into the deserted common office. He grabbed his backpack, slung it over his shoulder. Everybody else was long gone, rows of empty cubicles, clean desktops, devoid of conversation. He walked through the security door, out to the reception area. Closed the door behind him with a tiny click. The receptionist today wore a peacock blue sari. ‘That guy Shlomo’s an asshole,’ he said to her, unsolicited. ‘And Paul Gompertz isn’t Serbian. And Riva isn’t a coder, she’s more like a judo instructor or bodyguard or something. And I don’t trust that guy Yossi. Since they got here I’ve been watching them. They’re selling shit software to unsuspecting people and their technical support sucks. They’ve been spying on another company and sneaking around town. Now they’re in there packing up their office and shredding documents. I get the feeling UltraTel is imploding.’
‘What are you planning to do?’ the girl asked.
‘Start looking for a new job—immediately,’ Gaurav said. ‘I advise you to do so as well. I advise you to get the hell out of here as fast as you can and don’t look back.’
The receptionist didn’t need to be told twice. She’d had her own suspicions for a while. If it hadn’t been for the money she would have left a long time ago. She had savings. She could find another job. She grabbed her handbag from next to her feet and started to move personal items from the shallow desk drawer into the bag. Gaurav had always been a good boss to her. ‘You have any ideas for me?’
‘If I was you,’ Gaurav said, ‘I’d take a tuk-tuk over to a company called Talsera. Those are the people Shlomo and his buddies have been watching. I know they’re hiring, I hear they’re a pretty decent place to work. I think they are the good guys, and UltraTel are the bad guys. I’m going over there right now, too. I’m not saying a word to Shlomo, just splitting. UltraTel is officially off my CV, effective now. And I’m not saying anything to anybody here—except you.’
‘Why are you doing that?’
‘Because I’ve been really attracted to you since the first day you came into this office and I’ve never had the guts to say a word.’
‘And now you’ve got nothing to lose, right?’
‘Depends. You want to have dinner with me tonight?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Definitely. Yes I will, yes. I thought you’d never ask.’
‘Maybe we should share a tuk-tuk?’ he asked.
While the owner was in residence, the cavernous subterranean office with its matte finish gunmetal grey walls of carbon graphite-covered stainless steel was kept at a constant temperature of 18°C, day or night, no matter what the season. Its occupant sat at his massive, meticulously restored mahogany desk, an object of furniture once reputed to be the property of Czar Nicholas II. Concealed within it was an armada of high-tech equipment, through which its owner could view and manipulate every aspect of his myriad of global holdings. At the push of a hidden button a large, state-of-the-art high definition screen rose silently from the desktop into his field of view. Another button activated a sliding flat panel from which a touch-sensitive keypad and phone dialler appeared. Hidden microphones and speakers allowed him to conduct his business hands-free. A video camera placed on the wall opposite the desk could zoom to extreme close-up on his face, an intimidating setting which he often used during video calls like this one.
The occupant at the desk was a scrawny little man in a black business suit, white shirt and skinny black tie. He had a bald head and tiny ears that projected off the sides of his cranium like miniature satellite dishes, and his skin was wrinkled, parchment white and dry. His narrow mouth, framed by deep frown lines, downturned in a perpetual scowl. He was not a handsome man and never had been, with his hollowed out cheeks and sunken squinty eyes. Those eyes hid behind plain black horn-rimmed glasses, barely visible through thick, green-tinted distorting lenses. He sat hunched at his desk, where he spent endless hours in communication with all points of the globe, moving the metaphorical chess pieces of his sinister empire. But his voice was uncharacteristically deep, a basso emanating as if from another being altogether, and he articulated his words slowly, with the lilting hint of an unidentifiable Slavic language. At the moment he was located in Ukraine, but the next morning one of his private jets would whisk him to the Indian Ocean, where his superyacht—one of the largest in the world—awaited him. He had a voluptuous pneumatic wife forty years his junior named Olga, a 6 ft 2 in blonde who spent her time sunning by pools anywhere on earth where her husband was not. On the rare occasions when they met they had little to say to each other. Her inquiries usually had to do with the transfer of money, piles of which she burned through with great skill, but hardly took him to the edge of bankruptcy. He considered her more of a business expense than a liability. She was addicted to casinos and Graff diamonds. He hoped that he would not meet her on the yacht in the coming days. Today he worked alone in his office, which was located two storeys underground, beneath a huge 18th-century palace outside Kiev, on a vast private estate with its own one-mile-long landing strip.
The Skull’s fingers danced across the motion-sensitive touchpad, dialled up Shlomo’s private phone, double-encrypted the call, and in New Delhi the number rang. From his office 4,600 km away Shlomo pushed the green button.
‘So how’s it going?’ the Skull asked. ‘You bust into their intranet yet, find me the stuff I need?’
‘Working on it,’ Shlomo said. ‘The kid planted two bugs, walked right into their offices. Nobody recognized him.’
‘That’s good,’ the Skull said, chuckling. ‘You secure our Gurgaon office like I asked? The kid nail that down?’
‘Yes he did, sir. That’s all taken care of.’
‘And Talsera, you got me my access?’
‘Not really. The kid managed to lift a phone,’ Shlomo said. ‘We ought to be able to get some code off of that as soon as we’re back in Tel Aviv.’
‘You’re not going to let me down on that one. You know how important it is we get inside their network,’ the Skull said. ‘Remember Phase 2 of our big plan. You understand, you’re supposed to be able to handle assignments like this. I heard you booked the jet for tomorrow. That true?’
‘I thought we’d have everything buttoned down by then,’ Shlomo said. ‘I didn’t expect this last part would be so difficult.’
‘Well, you’re not taking the fucking jet until you get inside their system,’ the Skull said. ‘I’m calling off the jet until you tell me you’ve finished your job in Gurgaon. Then we’ll talk about flying home.’
Shlomo heard the line go dead, looked at the display on his phone. Blank, call ended.
‘What was that all about?’ Yossi asked and Shlomo shrugged.
‘We might not be going home so fast,’ he said. ‘Paul here has to live up to his great reputation. If he can’t crack their net, he may have to go back into Talsera one more time and plant another video camera.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Vikram said.
‘It means if you haven’t successfully hacked into their intranet, then we are going to need to watch somebody inside who has the keys to the gate. For that you’re going back into their offices …’
‘Wait a minute,’ Vikram said. ‘I got you a phone.’
‘Not good enough,’ Shlomo said. ‘The boss isn’t happy yet.’
‘Calm down, Paul,’ Riva said, massaging his shoulder. She had been sitting next to him as he worked his screen. ‘You can handle this. Then we’re cool to split.’
Vikram looked back at his computer. It hadn’t been going so well, but he didn’t want to say anything to anyone. It looked like somebody at Talsera was playing footsie with the security, the firewalls kept shifting, like they were testing things out, running new ideas, turning stuff on and off, impossible to track. That or somebody was throwing up a smoke screen.
Yossi bit his lip, considered the view out the window, which was darkness and some nearby skyscrapers. ‘I need some fresh air,’ he said. ‘I’m going up on the roof.’
‘Probably to smoke a cigarette,’ Riva said.
‘I’m up on the roof again,’ Yossi said. ‘Having second thoughts about our last conversation. I hope you don’t mind.’ Jaitendra didn’t say anything. ‘Doesn’t sound like we’re going home tomorrow. The boss is pissed off. You there?’
‘I’m here,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Why’s the boss so mad?’
‘He doesn’t think we got everything done he wanted us to do. We need to finish up.’ Jaitendra said nothing. ‘You still there?’
‘I’m still here,’ Jaitendra said.
‘So we’re going to be around another day, I guess. They cancelled our jet, just so you know. You don’t have to be watching the airstrip tomorrow. Maybe the day after.’
‘Are you going to tell me why you guys are here?’
‘One of our team was in charge of securing communications,’ Yossi said. ‘I told you that, OK? He did it. And we were selling some tax apps people didn’t particularly like, you knew that. Right?’ Jaitendra said nothing. ‘The boss wanted to find a way to keep all the money. The kid figured out how. Look, I gotta go. I’ll call you tomorrow.’
‘You do that,’ Jaitendra said. ‘I’m on pins and needles.’
Darkness fell over Gurgaon, and the streets remained lit by the orange haze from occasional halogen lights. In the distance the sound of thousands of auto horns echoed across the wide lanes, punctuated by the fugitive barking of feral dogs. At the roadsides people huddled at chai stands, and aimless labourers walked from here to there wandering between mysterious tasks. Somewhere in fields small campfires burned, and their bitter smoke wafted across the neighbourhoods, drifting between skyscrapers, along the narrow lanes, among the private homes, then up into the sky to join the accumulated pollution there.
In conference room Einstein, in Building 3 at Talsera’s headquarters, six people had assembled around a table. Khaneja sat at the head. Facing him along the left side Jaitendra and Neha waited. Across from them along the right side, Gaurav sat between Nitin and Adita. Nitin had his laptop open on the table in front of him. As they spoke he worked on the keyboard.
‘Gaurav phoned me out of the blue about two hours ago,’ Khaneja began. ‘Totally unexpected, unsolicited. He’d picked up my card at a trade fair last year, kept it, so he rang me on my mobile and asked if we could meet. When I heard who he’d been working with I sent a car for him immediately. That’s why we’re here.’
‘Who’s the girl waiting on the couch outside?’ Neha asked.
‘Our receptionist,’ Gaurav said. ‘She wants a job, too.’
‘We can look after her,’ Jaitendra said. ‘She’s going to need some temporary protection.’
‘Protection?’ Gaurav said. ‘From what?’
‘The bad guys,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You’re going to need it as well. But don’t worry. We’ve got your back.’
Khaneja said, ‘Can we get back into UltraTel?’
‘Sure,’ Gaurav said. ‘But I don’t know how much help I can be to you.’
‘Can you still log on to their intranet?’ Nitin said.
‘Got any passwords?’ Adita asked.
‘I suppose,’ Gaurav said. ‘They won’t be good for that long, though. As soon as they realize I’ve left the building.’
‘Let us be the judge of that. I want you to work with Nitin and Adita right now. Give them access to your computer.’
‘There’s been a weird guy working at our office,’ Gaurav said. ‘He’s been playing with our secure communications. He’s supposed to be a Serbian person, but I don’t believe it. I have no idea what he has done inside our system.’
‘We know about him already,’ Khaneja said. ‘We think he’s somebody we’ve met before.’
‘Wait a minute,’ Gaurav said. ‘About a year ago there were rumours a mega-brain nerd tried to bring your company down. He didn’t succeed, but he’s kind of a legend around town. People said he died. Other people thought he just disappeared. You think that it’s the same guy?’
Khaneja didn’t reply. Jaitendra said, ‘Can’t be sure, maybe yes, maybe no.’
Nitin looked up from his screen. ‘Gaurav, I see we’re in a few of the same user groups.’
‘Cool,’ Gaurav said. ‘Did you ever meet that guy, the one they call the Hacker?’
‘We can talk about that later,’ Jaitendra said. ‘At the moment you help us get into UltraTel.’
‘The Hacker, man. He’s awesome, he’s famous.’
‘It’s the other three that concern us. For the moment we’ll set you up in a company apartment with some very good protection until the trouble blows over. Shouldn’t be that long. You have people you need to call, tell them you’re OK?’ Gaurav nodded yes. ‘You start working now with Nitin and Adita, then we’ll introduce you to Hari Bhayya and he will get you and your friend comfortable places to sleep. Welcome to Talsera, glad to have you aboard.’
‘You think that Serbian guy was the Hacker?’ Gaurav asked. ‘He really exists? He came back?’
‘They’re on the move, major,’ Sergeant Khan said. ‘I just thought you might like to know, different car, black SUV, and we are following them.’
Jaitendra and Khaneja had been listening in already to the conversation, monitoring the location of the SUV as it crept through Gurgaon. It had been a revealing conversation, thanks to the bug concealed in the button at the top of Riva’s branded baseball cap.
‘They’re headed to the Cantonment to visit your esteemed Colonel Singh,’ Jaitendra told them. ‘You have your camera ready? Stay out of sight and train your video on them. He’s going to receive some cash and change the day for the jet, not tomorrow, but the day after.’
‘How do you know this, sir?’
‘A little bug told me,’ Jaitendra said. He was on a speaker, and he could hear the four soldiers laughing in their car. ‘Tomorrow they are planning to get into Talsera’s Building 6, where our servers are kept. The same building as Rajan’s office. They have no idea we’re on to them.’
‘But, sir, isn’t Raahgiri happening tomorrow? Won’t half of Gurgaon be closed off for the riders?’
‘That’s for them to find out,’ Jaitendra said. ‘You and I know it, but then nobody’s told them yet.’
In the SUV the Israelis continued to discuss their plan. Vikram had suggested he try to put a camera into Rajan Abraham’s office, since it was always so messy and it would never be discovered. Rajan was the partner who supervised the nerds.
‘Brilliant idea,’ Jaitendra said to Khaneja, monitoring their every word from the Talsera conference room. ‘Promise me you'll stop me from killing Vikram if i ever get my hands on him. They’re getting closer to the Cantonment.’
Shlomo said he expected security was pretty tight at Talsera. How did they suggest getting inside? Riva offered to make a diversion at the guard station. Yossi said he’d never get through the metal detector, maybe he should wait outside at the chai wallah, watch the front door. Unless the lobby was dark and he could go around. Yossi said what if he could fake a power failure for a half a minute. Was that enough time? Vikram said he could slide the device across the floor from outside the barrier, then pick it up inside, just like in a Tom Cruise movie he had seen. Shlomo said they should try for that plan.
‘These guys amaze me,’ Khaneja said. ‘Where did they learn their tradecraft?’
‘Mossad,’ Jaitendra said. ‘They’re all ex-military.’ ‘Except they’re all borderline personalities,’ Neha said. ‘Huge sense of entitlement. They think they can run around doing bad stuff and get away with it. We ought to pitch this as a Bollywood movie, a bunch of inept Israeli software dudes with a big rip-off scheme. I’d go see it.’
‘Looks like they’re at the Cantonment now, the gate near Colonel Singh’s office,’ Khaneja said. ‘Let’s switch over to Sergeant Khan’s video. I get the feeling the girl’s staying in the car, and Shlomo is going to hand off the money, so we won’t be able to hear their voices. Look: these little cameras are killer—it’s bright as daylight and sharp focus. The soldiers are 100 m away! Yes, there he goes, Shlomo’s out of the car, he’s meeting Colonel Singh behind that little bus stop.’
‘Right,’ Jaitendra said. ‘Singh’s got his euros and now Shlomo’s coming back to the SUV.’
From inside the van the conversation continued. Shlomo made some disparaging remarks about Colonel Singh. Yossi said he never thought the army was so easily corrupted. Vikram asked if they could stop for samosas on the way back to the hotel. Riva suggested they scope out the Talsera office tonight when the streets were empty, look at escape routes and so on. Shlomo agreed, to Vikram’s dismay, and the SUV headed to Building 3. They were there in a half-hour.
‘Wait a minute,’ Vikram said. ‘Check out that poster. Tomorrow’s Raahgiri.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Shlomo said.
‘Tomorrow all the streets are going to be closed off, and they are going have massive crowds here. Thousands of bikes on the road.’
‘Uh-oh,’ Neha said. ‘They’re on to Raahgiri.’
‘Great!’ Shlomo said enthusiastically. ‘More camouflage for us. Easier to conceal the operation.’
‘I’m calling Suresh,’ Jaitendra said.
‘Let’s circle the block one more time and finalize the operation,’ Shlomo said. ‘You’re sure you remember where Rajan Abraham’s office is? Okay, then.’
The task fell to Hari Bhayya to calm Security Guard no. 31 Sumithra, who telephoned in a high state of confusion.
‘Jaitendra-sir has tonight asked me to violate security procedures,’ the guard said, her voice filled with anxiety. ‘He has warned me a Serbian man who looks like Michael Jackson will appear at the post tomorrow and I am to look away and let him go in without signing him into the logbook which is official procedure as established. He has told me it must be kept secret, from all the other guards, and from the employees. This is not done. He says a beautiful woman may accompany him and I am to pretend to welcome her and keep her occupied. Hari Bhayya-sir, I am a married person. I cannot be breaking the rules and losing my job.’
‘Jaitendra-ji knows what he is doing. He is entrusting you with a highly confidential and important task. You need only do as he asks and keep quiet about it. Try to act naturally with them. I cannot be seen by him, but do not worry, beta, Danny Khaneja-ji will be there to protect you.’
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From issue 35 of Lucire
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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