‘Anti-Social Network, that’s what they call themselves,’ said Usman Teacher through teeth gritted in pain. Two days of the ‘third degree’ treatment at the Jagtap Circle lock-up had him keeled over in pain. His bluff-and-bluster attitude was gone, replaced by naked fear. The man had too many secrets that could hurt too many people in power. He knew that he had perhaps just a few days left before someone decided to shut him up forever. The end would perhaps come as a random custodial death or perhaps as an encounter at a court hearing. Usman had realized that his only way out was if he traded some information with his captors. The situation was too dire to use the normal ‘sweetening agent’—hard cash. So he decided on the only other thing that he could use as leverage—information.
Hence, as soon as Virkar arrived at the lock-up, Usman wasted no time. He had offered what he called ‘crucial information’ that would help Virkar make a breakthrough in his serial-murder case. Although Usman Teacher had a strong khabri network, Virkar doubted he could have anything worthwhile connected to this extremely odd case, but he decided to wait and hear what Usman wanted in exchange. Usman told Virkar that he feared for his life and wanted to get out of Mumbai, and so he wanted his case to be handed over to the CBI in Delhi. Virkar, of course, knew that he didn’t have the authority to pull off any such thing, but he hemmed and hawed, promising nothing and yet conveying to Usman that whatever action he took on his behalf would depend entirely on how good the information was. After almost an hour of back-and-forth, Usman Teacher finally realized that Virkar would not budge from his position. The pain of the third degree was draining his energy and he had very little time left to maintain his coherence. He decided to take a leap of faith based on what he knew of Virkar’s reputation.
‘Anti-Social Network,’ repeated Virkar. ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’
‘Not if I tell you what these kids are capable of,’ said Usman Teacher as he pushed himself back into a comfortable position, for the first time feeling like he had the upper hand. He felt the familiar tingling of nervousness buzzing in his ears as he began to part with precious nuggets of information. In the past, the nuggets had bought him a good life. He hoped that this particular one could save what was left of it.
‘Six months ago, a group of computer-savvy college students connected together through the Internet. They came together to program…uh…something called…computer malware that is undetectable by the anti-virus software sold in the market. This malware is disguised as links to video or music, which young people normally download. Inside this malware were remote-access tools. Through these tools, this “Anti-Social Network” group hacked other people’s computers.’
Virkar interrupted him mid-speech. ‘How is Sagarika associated with these people?’
Usman Teacher allowed himself to cough and spit out the phlegm that he had been suppressing for some time now. Virkar couldn’t help but notice the flecks of blood in the coughed-out spit.
‘I thought you were an experienced man, Inspector Virkar. You are reacting like an impatient new recruit,’ he remarked. ‘These youngsters came up with an excellent idea. They created a computer programme that could hack into the e-mail accounts or social network profiles of a person, and pretend to be them’. Usman Teacher paused, enjoying the tension of the moment. ‘They would then request sexually explicit photos or videos from their victim’s respective boyfriend or girlfriend, as a mark of loyalty, love, lust etcetera. In many cases, they were successful in obtaining such photos. Once they had a photo or video in their possession, a member of the Anti-Social Network would then contact the boy or the girl in the photo or video to demand money from them by threatening to distribute the photos to family and friends if the police were contacted.’
Virkar let Usman Teacher’s words sink in. He had just remembered the sex video on Rajesh Chawre’s iPod. His pulse quickened. What he had just heard was plausible, but he still needed to check a couple of things. ‘And how is this related to my case?’ he asked, trying not to let his excitement show.
‘That’s your job to figure out, Inspector. I can only tell you that both your victims, Rajesh Chawre and Kshitij Bhatia, were members of this group.’
Virkar took a deep breath. Knowing that Usman Teacher would not have got the news of Nayantara Joshi’s murder yet, Virkar asked, ‘Are there any more members that you know of?’
Usman Teacher nodded. ‘A couple of girls and another couple of guys, I think. But I don’t have their details.’
Virkar’s face did not give anything away. ‘Is that all you have?’ he asked.
‘Is that all?’ Usman Teacher exclaimed incredulously. ‘I’ve just given you key information on the murder spree you are investigating!’
‘Calm down,’ Virkar said as he raised his hand. He then realized that he hadn’t asked Usman Teacher the most important question of all. ‘How the hell do you know all this?’
Usman Teacher smiled a toothy smile through his pain. ‘A khabri is always looking for information. Information is power. Information is money. Information is my life.’
Virkar now sounded annoyed. ‘Yes, yes, I know all that bakwas, but tell me exactly how you know.’
Usman Teacher smiled despite Virkar’s display of irritation. ‘One of my khabris is a waiter at an Udipi restaurant who also works part-time at a cyber café. He overheard a guy and a girl from this group talking about their plan. No one ever thinks that a waiter at an Udipi restaurant could be educated or know anything about computers, but they forget that this is Mumbai,’ he laughed.
Virkar’s palms were sweating. Everything that Usman Teacher had said could either be true or could have been cooked up by his wily brain. He needed to check things out for himself. ‘Where is this waiter? And where is this Udipi restaurant?’
‘The waiter has gone to his gaon, where he shall remain until I call him back.’ Usman Teacher’s eyeslids narrowed.
‘Where is his village? Tell me; I’ll go and talk to him personally. I promise that no harm will come to him,’ said Virkar, in all earnestness.
‘Bas kya, Inspector, apun ko chutiya samjela hai kya? You get me the transfer orders to CBI custody first, and only then will I give you the waiter’s address.’ Virkar could see the beady shine in Usman’s eyes through the thin slits of his eyelids.
It was the classic quid pro quo situation. Virkar knew there was a ring of truth in Usman Teacher’s story, but also knew that it was not very much to go by. He needed to think things over carefully before he took the next step. ‘Give me twenty-four hours,’ he said as he turned on his heels and began to walk out of the cell.
Usman Teacher then started to lose the composure that he had maintained till now. ‘Inspector, no more than twenty-four hours.’ Virkar turned his head and nodded. ‘One last thing,’ said Usman Teacher in a pleading voice, ‘please, can you place one of your trusted men outside my cell? Until you get back.’ Virkar gave him a long look; the snake-like suspicion was gone and fear was back in Usman Teacher’s eyes.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Virkar curtly, as he left the cell.