Virkar took one hard swig from a newly opened bottle of Godfather beer and immediately spat it out. ‘Tchaila!’ he cursed. The beer was flat. His supplier was slipping up. Each bottle of Godfather was precious to him since it was always so rare to find in Mumbai. In disgust, he threw the bottle over the side rails of the Koli Queen and immediately regretted it—he hated littering the sea. Virkar was out on another one of his midnight boat rides where copious amounts of Godfather beer and Jhinga Koliwada combined with the cool salty sea air helped clear the logjam of information in his head.
He reached out for another bottle. Popping the lid, he took a tentative swig. This one was fine and Virkar relaxed, letting the cool liquid course down his throat. He popped a couple of pieces of the hot jhinga into his mouth. The spicy prawns mixed with beer made Virkar’s senses open up, his mind was beginning to mull over the events of the day. By now, he was sure that the Anti-Social Network, led by the mystery man, was able to remote access people’s computers and search them for intimate or sexually explicit photos, preferably of female college students or young women. They would then blackmail and extort money from these people. Sometimes, as in Naina and Virkar’s case, they also used computers to record videos through webcams and perhaps listen in through built-in microphones. What amazed Virkar was that the ASN was able to operate without any of the victims coming forward and making a complaint about them. It was surprising that most people just paid them off and shut up about it.
He took a long swig of beer and stretched out on the wooden bench. Glancing up at the black cloudless sky, he turned his attention to the twinkling stars. Something else was bothering him but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He let his mind drift in an attempt to let the buried thought rise to the surface and somewhere between sound of the waves gently lapping against the boat and the stars twinkling each time he looked at them, Virkar drifted off to sleep.
It was nearly dawn when his phone rang, jerking him out of his relaxed sleep. In the soft light, Virkar could see the Koli Queen approaching the Mumbai shoreline and realized that he had slept through the night. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes, trying to focus as he glanced at the screen; he thought it might be Naina calling, having arisen early and finding him gone. But his screen flashed an unknown number instead. Intrigued, Virkar picked up the call.
‘This is the man you’re looking for,’ a calm voice said. Virkar suddenly felt completely alert, sure that it was the mystery man calling. The voice spoke again, ‘How is the early morning breeze out on the sea?’ Greeted with silence on Virkar’s end, the mystery man laughed. ‘If I can record your bedroom antics, locating you is child’s play, isn’t it?’ There was no doubt that the mystery man wanted Virkar to know how was supremely tech-savvy he was.
Virkar decided to play along. ‘Yes, I understand how dangerous you are.’
The mystery man stopped laughing. His voice turned cold. ‘Believe me, Inspector, you have no idea how dangerous I can actually be.’
Virkar didn’t reply. For a few seconds there was complete silence. The first orange rays of the sun appeared over the horizon and the silence stretched to a point where Virkar felt that the mystery man was no longer on the line. ‘Hello, are you there?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I am here, Inspector.’ His voice sounded a little weary. ‘But I don’t want to be here. I’ve had enough of all this drama and I’ve decided to go away.’
‘Where?’ asked Virkar.
‘Far away,’ replied the mystery man. ‘So far away that you won’t be able to find me. Not that you can find me now,’ he chuckled.
Virkar waited till the mystery man’s laughter died down. He was about to ask a question when the mystery man spoke again. ‘Inspector, I want you to sit quiet for the next two or three days; after that, your troubles shall be over.’
‘And if I don’t?’ Virkar’s voice had a tinge of defiance in it.
‘If you don’t, not only will I post your sex video online but I will also post nude pictures of thousands of innocent girls from Mumbai online.’ Virkar sucked in his breath. The mystery man continued, ‘And it will all be routed through an email account that I have created using your identity. By the time you’re able to prove that it is not your account, I will be long gone and your reputation and career will be tainted beyond repair.’
Virkar realized that he needed to play it cool. ‘Okay, I’ll keep quiet, but I can’t help it if others come after you.’
The mystery man chuckled again. ‘Come off it, Inspector! There’s no one else who is after me. All your other colleagues are happy that the culprit has been caught and the case is closed. The Anti-Social Network operated by Akhbir has shut down. Everybody else thinks that it was Philo who went on a killing spree to eliminate the members of the ASN using Sagarika’s identity. It is only you who is still poking his nose where it doesn’t belong.’
Virkar decided to push the mystery man a little further and extract as much information as he could. ‘But am I right or not? You are the mastermind behind the ASN and you used Philo to eliminate all your associates…’
‘…and I’ve also eliminated the drug dealer who tipped you off about me.’ Virkar drew in a sharp breath. ‘I knew that would make you see sense. Look, all I am asking you to do is to back off. And I need a reply right now, in a simple yes or a no.’ This time it was Virkar who let the silence stretch out.
‘Yes,’ he finally said into the receiver.
‘Good decision. Goodbye, Inspector,’ the mystery man’s cold voice rang in his ear for the final time before he cut the line. Virkar looked at the silent phone in his hand and kept it by his side. A childhood ditty began to ring through his head: ‘In pin safety pin, in pin out. Khelna hai toh khelo, warna get out.’