I did not dare to move, lest I give away my hiding place inside the ducting vent of the air-conditioning unit. I watched with every muscle in the left side of my body on fire from lack of movement for the past forty-five odd minutes. He finally got up from his desk and picked up his cell, wearing his coat as he walked to the door. Time was running out, my partner and look-out Amita would be getting antsy. Still I dare not move yet. I took a deep breath and Tahir started counting in reverse. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."
Ambrish stopped at the door and walked back to his mahogany desk, as I groaned silently, he opened a drawer and pulled out a thick manila file from it. Then he walked out of the door and shut it. I slid the vent panel, having loosened it earlier and swung down into the room, crossing over lithely to the desk and quickly inserted the flash drive into the computer.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!” Tahir, my twin’s voice echoed in my ear. “You’ve got to get out before Amita is discovered!”
“Yes, dude, will you stop nagging,” I replied, ‘you’re like an old grandmother, always worrying!”
“Someone has to, since you always leap before you look!”
“Okay bro, this is it. What do I do now?” Tahir’s instructions came through and I hit a couple of commands watching as the program uploaded into the system. The client would be pleased, he now has backdoor access to Ambrish’s system and all that it contains, I thought exiting the room the same way I entered. I ran out of the building and hurried towards the shadows where Amita waited in the idling getaway car.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, grinning as I threw myself into the seat next to her. “Mischief managed!” I could imagine Tahir rolling his eyes, sure enough, “Grow up!” floated into my mind as the ESP we shared connected us like no technologically advanced communication device could.
“I nearly called you a minute ago, when I saw Ambrish’s car leave. What happened? He wasn’t supposed to be here today!” asked a visibly tense Amita as she carefully navigated the dark roads of the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway.
“I too got the shock of my life when I saw him sitting on the desk. Luckily I saw him before I entered the room else I’d be a string puppet by now,” I quipped.
“Mihir, please be serious,” scolded Amita.
“Chill, Ams! It was a setback but it’s over with now,” I broke in before her tirade turned into a lecture.
“So where to now?” she asked pointedly letting me know I wasn’t off the hook just yet.
“Drop me off at Striker’s, babe, meeting the gang there. Why don’t you join in?” I asked knowing that she would refuse. This was a conversation we had regularly. I would ask her to join me in a night of drunken revelry and she would refuse. There was a time the three of us Tahir, Amita and me would drink and dance the night away, not now. Not since Tahir was diagnosed.
“Not tonight, Mihir,” she replied.
“He still loves and misses you, you know,” I watched a shadow flit across her face.
She sighed, “I do too.”
“So are we done with this case?”
“Yeah, done and dusted.”
The three of us, my twin Tahir, Amita, who was Tahir’s girl at the time, had started Matrix Services twelve years back, fresh out of college. Growing up on a diet of Christie and Holmes and graduating to the likes of Clancy and Baldacchi we were always sure we wanted to be ‘Private Eyes.’ Tahir the brain of the operations was a computer whiz kid while Amita the voice of reason took care of the admin as well as finance side of the agency. Athletics and sports made up for the mediocre student that I was and martial arts after that made me the brawn for the team. We’d grown from handling small time shadowing of errant spouses to providing hard-core intelligence and espionage services to corporates. With a team of fifty now, we had made a name for ourselves in the industry. Amita always worried about the risks I took, usually partnered with me like today.
“The money came in from the client, this morning. I’m glad this case is over. Ambrish is a powerful man with his wife being the sister of one of the country’s leading politicians, we took a big risk with this one,” Amita said. She was worried.
“They were offering an obscene amount of money just to plant a simple program in a computer, Ams. It was a cakewalk. Stop worrying, you’re as bad as Tahir!”
To which my twin snorted, “And you are a bull-headed idiot who won’t listen to reason.”
Eager to get them both off my back I asked, “Listen, since there’s nothing more on the calendar for me, would you mind holding the fort while I took off for a few days to skydive with Dave in Italy? He called yesterday and has everything arranged. My visa is still valid from the case last month, so I just have to buy a ticket and be off.”
“What does Tahir think?” asked Amita.
“That he’s an idiot with a death wish,” pat came Tahir’s reply.
“Tahir objects as always, he’s sulking right now. You know him, he’ll natter and nag and then give me the silent treatment.”
“Okay Mihir, but you take care.”
“Sure babe. See you then in a week or so, meanwhile I’ll be reachable on my cell,” I said kissing her on the forehead.
The sound of the incessant ringing of my cell cut through the dense fog in my brain as I slept off last night’s drunken excesses. I opened one eye and groaned in pain as a ruthless beam of light entered and went straight into the right side of my head. I burrowed into the pillows hoping to block out the cause of my return to consciousness into what was turning out to be a hellhole of hammering that would surely lead to my brain bleeding out of my ears. The ringing stopped briefly and began again, bringing with it a fresh doze of torment, I picked up the phone from the table beside the hotel bed and answered with my tongue thick as sandpaper, “Ams, this better be good.”
“Mihir, you’ve got to get back fast. All hell’s broken loose! Ambrish’s goons thrashed our office last night, and killed Subhash, the security guard. The cops are all over the place,” her frantic whisper brought me back to the land of living.
“They better not get into the client files!” I instructed, “I’ll be on the next flight out. Ams call Prakash he’ll slow things down till I get there.”
It was a week since the night I had planted the virus in Ambrish’s laptop, having completed the dive in Amalfi two days back, I was in Rome now. I hit the ground running, downing a couple of pain meds to deal with a mother of all hangovers and was out of the hotel on my way to the airport in an hour.
“Amita should not be handling this alone,” Tahir berated.
“Prakash, is the head of our legal team, he will help Amita stall the cops.”
I worried that with Ambrish’s connections it would not be for long. As I dealt with my nausea and vile-headed feeling in the cab I cursed myself for giving into Dave’s suggestion of hitting the watering holes of Rome. I should have returned to Delhi immediately. Some of our client files were sensitive. They must not fall into the hands of the cops. Matrix would be ruined.
“You could activate the self-destruct safeguard, I built into the software,” Tahir reminded, “but only you can do that as it requires your biometric scan.”
I called Amita from the airport, “There’s a non-stop flight out of here at 2 p.m. I’m taking that will land at 2 a.m. India time. Ams just hold it together till then.”
“Prakash is handling the cops. They hardly seem to be interested in Subhash’s murder, it’s our files they’re after. Ambrish is probably worried about what information we’ve taken off his system.”
“Yeah, I guess so. What he doesn’t know is that we have nothing. The virus was designed to give the client access, not us. Ask the team not to go home tonight, with everyone around the cops will be careful. I need to get to the office as soon as possible, the client files have to be safeguarded.”
“Okay. I’ll pick you up at the airport. We can also talk on the way.”
I was one of the first ones out of the flight and as I had no check-in baggage, quickly exited the gates at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and joined Amita in the idling car.
“Most of cops left a couple of hours ago; there are only two constables to ensure we don’t take anything out of the office. It’s been a circus all day, with the police, the media and client calls,” she filled me in with the happenings of the day as she drove.
“Sorry Babe. I didn’t foresee any of this.”
As we entered the office, the team looked up at me exhausted and at the same time hopeful. The two constables looked on with curiosity, as Amita, Prakash and I spoke to the rest of the team in the conference room. I needed them to distract the two cops so that I could run the biometrics. The team understood and we all got to work.
With Tahir’s voice in my head directing me again, within minutes all our sensitive client data was wiped clean from the system. My brother was a bloody genius, nobody could retrieve this data, of that I was sure.
The immediate threat taken care of, barring two of the team members I asked everyone to go home and rest. Tomorrow was bound to be another long day.
Amita dropped me home and I crashed. I woke up suddenly, gasping for air as a large rough hand pressed over my mouth, then I felt the cold steel of a gun’s barrel pressing down on my temple.
“Make one sound and you’re dead, understood?” threatened a whispered command in the darkness.
I nodded. The hand moved away and I pulled myself into a sitting position on the bed. As my eyes adjusting to the darkness darted around the room I could make out the shape of three stocky men standing at various points. Just as unexpectedly, the lights were switched on and I shielded my eyes with my arm from the onslaught of light. My blood ran cold on seeing Ambrish sitting on the lazyboy in front of my bed.
“Well, Mr Mihir we seem to have a bit of a problem,” his voice had a startling softness and sophistication that was unnerving in the circumstances. His eyes locked unblinkingly on mine and held for several intimidating seconds.
“You’re a smart young man I’m told,” he continued, “so lying and wasting my time could turn out to be a very bad idea.”
I felt Tahir’s fear rise like bitter bile in my throat, “Don’t get cocky, Mihir. Just tell him what he wants to know.”
"I know that you planted a program in my computer that opened a back door for someone to access sensitive information that has cost me a fortune.” he paused, “How do I know, you wonder? That was a no brainer once I realised someone had hacked into my system. You see, every programmer leaves his so called cyber fingerprint on his programs and my cyber-sleuths easily figured out yours.”
I had no doubts that Ambrish knew that I was working for someone else and not myself.
“And to anticipate the question that’s probably in your mind, I want the name of the man who hired you. I have my suspicions who it could be but need confirmation! So, Mihir are you going to make this easy for yourself or do you need coaxing from my associates?”
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!” whispered Tahir.
I knew I would be signing my death warrant if I gave up the information easily, for once Ambrish had the name my life would be expendable. The only thing I could do now was to buy some time.
“I don’t know the name of the client. We never met him, all the conversations were over the phone.”
As soon as the words left my mouth the three men moved in a blur of motion, two held my arms and yanked me off the bed, almost pulling my arms off their sockets they then threw me face down on the floor and the third pulled my head up and stuffed my mouth with a cloth stretching a duct tape across it. Then they proceeded to kick me brutally in the gut, a scream rose in my throat but was stifled by the cloth in my mouth. After what seemed like eons but was probably a few seconds they stepped back as I lay there panting with pain from the blows.
“I told you to not act cocky,” I heard Tahir’s voice through the thick fog of pain that cloaked all else in my brain.
“Shut up, Tahir.”
Raising my head painfully I saw Ambrish flick some imaginary lint off his trousers.
“I don’t appreciate being lied to Mihir,” he spoke in his soft voice that was more menacing in its calmness. “The only reason you’re still alive is because I need that confirmation. I can just as easily get it from your lady partner. I would not try my patience too much. Should I ask my associates to remove the gag? Will you behave now?”
I nodded and they roughly pulled off the duct tape and propped me up against the wall.
“So let’s begin again, shall we Mihir? What is the name of your client?”
“Talwar,” I lied again.
I didn’t know the name of the client. I was telling the truth the first time; all our dealings had been over the phone. Talwar was Ambrish’s arch enemy, a ruthless real estate baron, it was the name that he was probably hoping to hear from me. I knew I would not live through the night, the least I could do was save Amita.
“Thank you for all your help, Mihir. I wish you’d stayed away from my affairs,” he sighed as he stood up and walked towards the door. “Make it quick, boys.”
They gagged me again, and tied my hands behind my back, I was barely able to resist. Then one of them pulled a silenced gun out from its holster and shot me in the chest. I felt myself jerk and slump sideways down on the floor. There was an intense burning sensation in my chest, I saw the blood pooling on the floor in front of me, then the pain hit me and I began to black out.
“Walk towards the light bro,” Tahir’s words floated across as the blackness descended upon me.
I stood there with tears in my eyes looking at Mihir’s broken body lying in a pool of his own blood. It had been a few hours since I had found him like this. There were a number of people milling about in his one room apartment now.
A cop, probably an SP, approached me, “Do you know his next of kin, they would have to be informed?”
“No, there’s no one,” I replied quietly.
“His parent’s died in a road accident when he was ten. His twin and he were brought up by their uncle who also died a few years ago.”
“His twin? Where is he? Shouldn’t he be informed?”
I looked at him for a long moment, “Tahir died,” I said, “three years back...he... he had cancer.”