‘This is a waste of time,’ Virkar said for the third time that evening. He was pacing up and down the small room in Khotachiwadi that housed Richard’s hacking equipment. Having been cooped up in the room with Naina and Richard for the past five hours, his patience was quickly wearing thin. For the past two hours, he had been cursing himself silently for letting himself be convinced by Naina to go on what now seemed like a wild goose chase.
He had arrived at his office that morning not in the best of moods; all his ruminations aboard the Koli Queen a few days ago had not resulted in any concrete insights. For the next few days, he was at a bit of a loose end, dealing with paperwork and trying to figure out how to take things forward on his case. That morning, though, to his surprise, he saw Naina waiting for him at his desk. He was a little unsure when Naina suggested that he use Richard’s hacking skills on Rajesh Chawre’s and Kshitij Bhatia’s computers to track down any leads about the Anti-Social Network that might have been missed by the experts at the police Cyber Crime Cell. As far as Virkar knew, the Cyber Crime Cell was very good at its job and would not really have missed anything. But Naina had persisted and, looking back at that moment, Virkar felt that he had given in to her idea perhaps because he could spend a little time with her. He kicked himself mentally for letting his personal desire cloud his professional judgement. He threw Richard yet another irritated look but Richard was lost to the world, staring at the computer monitors in front of him, sitting exactly in the same position since Virkar had arrived with Rajesh Chawre’s hard disk and Kshitij Bhatia’s laptop five hours ago.
Getting no response from Richard, Virkar turned his attention to Naina. She was sitting on a makeshift wooden-crate chair, looking as antsy as him. She returned Virkar’s look with a shrug that suggested that he remain patient for some more time. But Virkar was fresh out of patience. Having perhaps sensed the mood of his guests, Richard suddenly said, ‘Why don’t you two take a quick walk around Khotachiwadi and be back in ten minutes? I might have something for you by then.’ Virkar was about to retort irritably but Naina quickly sprang up from her chair and butted in. ‘That’s a great idea. C’mon, Virkar, let’s go. Richard, we’ll be back soon.’ She strode up to Virkar and despite his protesting looks, led him out of the room and into the narrow gali.
As soon as Virkar and Naina had left the room, Richard got up from his chair and walked up to the exposed brick wall across from him. Lifting two fingers, he pushed against the corner of a single brick in the middle of the wall. The brick swivelled in its place, opening up a small gap in the wall. Richard slid his fingers into the hole and withdrew a vial full of a white powdery substance. He walked to the table in front of him and from a drawer withdrew a hand-mirror and an empty transparent plastic ballpoint pen tube. He quickly emptied the contents of the vial on to the mirror and let the white powder sit in a small mound on the glass. Using the pen tube to separate the white powder into two thin lines on the glass, he placed the tube at one end of the line of powder after he was satisfied with his crude handiwork. Lowering his head, he gently put the other end of the tube into his right nostril and drew a massive snort. He then repeated the same operation using his left nostril and snorted the remaining line of powder.
Wiping the mirror clean, Richard put it back in his drawer. He quickly replaced the refill in the ballpoint pen tube and screwed on the end. Dropping the ballpoint pen into the drawer as well, he shut it and then stepped back towards the wall to place the now empty vial in the cavity behind the brick, which he finally closed with his two fingers. Richard then turned and walked back to his computer table. Just as he sat down, the door opened and Virkar and Naina walked in. Richard looked towards them and smiled. ‘Ah, just in time,’ he said.
Virkar did not return his smile but shot back a terse, ‘Have you found something?’
Richard kept smiling, turning his gaze on to Naina. ‘Why don’t you both sit down?’
‘Arre, don’t khao bhao, Mr Computer Genius. Tell us quickly.’ The irritation in Virkar’s voice was palpable now.
Clearing his throat, Richard began, ‘Kshitij Bhatia was sexually involved with Sagarika, perhaps he was her boyfriend. He apparently met her when she got mixed up with some druggies. Somewhere along the line, Sagarika was suddenly contacted by Rajesh Chawre, who said that he was a member of the Anti-Social Network. Rajesh sent Sagarika a video of her having sex with Kshitij in one of her drugged-out periods. He then demanded money from Sagarika, threatening to go public with the video if she didn’t pay up. She was scared and didn’t know what to do; in any case, she didn’t have the money to pay Rajesh. She went to Kshitij for help. But instead of defending her, Kshitij called her a whore. When she couldn’t deliver the money on the date and time that she was assigned, Rajesh sent her a last warning. Sagarika then sent an email to Kshitij, pleading, cajoling and finally threatening him with dire consequences if he didn’t do anything to get her out of the mess.’
Somewhere along Richard’s monologue, Virkar and Naina had sat down on the rickety chairs facing the computer screens. They had been listening intently to what Richard was saying and now found themselves staring at him, flabbergasted. Finally, Virkar broke the stunned silence. ‘How the hell did you find all this out?’
Richard flashed a cheeky smile. ‘Uncle, all e-mails are there on the Internet to find.’
Virkar was still not convinced. ‘But the Cyber Crime Cell didn’t find anything.’
‘Does your Cyber Crime Cell Unit know about Soomdi email?’
‘What the hell is that?’
Richard took a deep breath and launched off like a professor addressing a classroom, ‘Soomdi email is the latest buzz on the streets. It uses complex encryption and elements of CipherSend and Safester, but is more secure because it is routed through a private and secure offshore server racked in a biometric security lockdown facility in Panama. It’s something like Little Brother.’
Virkar stared at him nonplussed. ‘Panama, Little Brother, CipherSend! What are these things? What are you talking about?’
‘It’s too complicated for you, uncle.’ Richard’s voice now held a hint of condescension.
Naina finally broke into the conversation. ‘But it’s not too complicated for me, so please continue,’ she said firmly.
‘See, ma’am, it’s like this. Normally, the ISP that you use to access the Internet stores all the data of your activities in their system—unless the servers are private servers and they are in a secure facility, like being housed in a nation that has legislation to stringently protect Internet privacy, such as Panama.’
‘But if it’s so well protected, then how did you get in?’ Naina asked, raising an eyebrow.
Richard smiled that cheeky smile again. ‘I have a Soomdi account. I used that to hack into the Anti-Social Network’s account and from there followed the trail of emails.’
Virkar’s brain was spinning but he sprang forward and walked up to the monitor. ‘Show me the emails,’ he demanded.
Richard rolled his eyes and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. A chain of email exchanges opened up on his monitor. Virkar speed-read snatches of sentences. As the page ended, he turned to Richard. ‘Fantastic. Go into the Anti-Social Network’s account and extract all their emails.’
Richard immediately held up his hands. ‘Not possible. By now, all the other emails would have been deleted and perhaps even their accounts would have been shut down.’
Virkar was taken aback. ‘What?! How?’
‘These secret ISPs respond very fast to security breaches,’ Richard explained patiently.
‘But can’t you use your account to hack in again?’
‘What, uncle? Do you think these guys are fools? I only got a two-minute window, where I could enter and get what I was looking for. By now my IP address will be blacklisted on all the lists of the secure email ISPs. Now I’m forever barred from such accounts. But it was worth it.’
‘Dammit, you should have checked for emails from the others, too!’ Virkar exclaimed, feeling frustrated.
But Richard only shrugged. ‘You only told me about those three. Jitna bola utna ich karenga!’ Virkar felt murderous but when Naina put a restraining hand on his shoulder, he tried to calm himself. Her soft voice further soothed Virkar as she asked, ‘You’ve got all the proof that you need for your case, haven’t you?’
Virkar nodded, but voiced a thought that was bothering him. ‘Something doesn’t add up. Usman Teacher told me that both Rajesh and Kshitij were members of the ASN and he also said that there were a few more. We didn’t find any evidence of that in these email exchanges.’
Richard shrugged again as he said, ‘Look, uncle, that maybe so, but the emails I found give a different picture of the ASN.’
‘This Usman Teacher wasn’t really a paragon of virtue, was he? He could have given you some wrong information, too,’ Naina added.
Virkar raised his hands in mock surrender and, turning to Richard, said, ‘Okay, Mr Genius, can you get any more information on this Anti-Social Network in any other way?’
Richard smiled and glanced at Naina, who was rolling her eyes in mock irritation. ‘Maybe, but that calls for a renegotiation and an entirely new incentive package,’ he said.
Virkar sat back down on the rickety chair. ‘Okay, so what do you want?’