Altamash Chambers, a three-storeyed building, had been built in 1933 and although was now a mere shadow of its old self, still somehow managed to stand upright. Even though the corridors of its three floors were lined with thick wooden poles that functioned as support columns, its rickety eighty-year-old wooden staircase had managed to survive the vagaries of the building’s populace. But age had made sure that the stair boards creaked even under the lightest of weights. Virkar, in his hurry, had not realized how loud the sound of the creaky staircase might be, a fact he found out as soon as his foot hit the first stair. He flinched and immediately slowed down, but the damage was already done.
‘Kaun aahe?’ a guttural voice called out from under the stairs. Virkar looked through the wooden slats of the stairs and saw a man in shorts and a vest sitting on a thin mattress that probably functioned as his bed. The tiny space around him was crammed with articles, indicating that the space was the man’s home.
‘Police. Baher ye,’ said Virkar, inflecting his voice with the kind of authority that demands immediate compliance. Within a few seconds, the man under the stairs had scrambled out and was standing in front of Virkar. He took one look at Virkar and realized that he needn’t ask him for any credentials. On the contrary, he volunteered, ‘I’m Vitthal, the watchman, saheb. How can I help you?’ His voice was much softer now.
‘The man who left just now. Where’s his room?’ Virkar asked urgently.
‘Which man, saheb? I didn’t see anyone,’ said Vitthal.
‘You were probably sleeping.’ Virkar was irritated. Vitthal opened his mouth to speak but Virkar cut him off. ‘Look, this man has got either a room or office space in this building. He’s about medium height and medium built. He had a beard a few days back but is now clean-shaven.’
Vitthal looked completed nonplussed. ‘Saheb, I’ve not seen anyone matching that description and no one lives in this building. They’re all offices.’
Virkar grew thoughtful. He realized that the mystery man had been smart enough to use the space sparingly, making sure that his comings and goings went unnoticed. He knows how to cover his tracks well, thought Virkar. ‘How long have you been the watchman here?’ he asked out loud.
‘For the past twenty-five years and not one robbery has taken place in the time,’ replied Vitthal, sounding defensive.
‘You know the owner of each and every office?’
‘I think so.’
‘Come with me,’ said Virkar as he strode up the stairs, unmindful of the creaks this time. On the first floor, he stood at the front of the first office at the head of the stairs. ‘R. Chandiramani, Chartered Accountant’ read the sign. ‘Tell me about this office,’ Virkar demanded.
Vitthal shrugged. ‘This office belongs to Ramesh bhai who lives in Bhuleshwar. He is an accountant, as you can see on the board. He comes in the morning at 10 a.m. and leaves at 6 p.m. every day except Sunday.’
Virkar nodded and walked to the door of the next office: ‘Seabird Maritime Services’. Virkar pointed to the sign and Vitthal raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you going to ask me about each and every office in this building?’
‘Yes. So hurry up. We don’t have much time.’
It was only after about twenty minutes, when they had reached the far corner of the second floor, that Virkar had something of a breakthrough. Vitthal and he stood in front of an old wooden door that seemed to an original part of the eighty-year-old building. In fact, the padlock that hung from the heavy cast-iron latch also seemed to belong to that era.
‘This office had not been used for the past fifteen years or so, but now some computer company has hired it and uses it as its godown.’
‘Which computer company?’ Virkar asked.
Vitthal scratched his head. ‘Saheb, this is one of those offices I don’t know much about. About six months ago, some computers were stocked over here. But I can safely tell you that no one has been inside since then.’
Virkar bent down and examined the padlock. In the darkness of the corridor, he could hardly see anything. He switched on his cell phone and shone its light on the latch. His keen eyes spotted a few miniscule scratches near the keyhole. On closer examination, he realized that the scratches were fresh. His heart now pounding fast with excitement, Virkar pressed his ear to the wooden door. His ears picked up an almost imperceptible whirring sound from inside the room. He got up and turned to the watchman. ‘Go get a iron saliya or a thick rod.’
‘A saliya? What for?’
‘Just go get it,’ snapped Virkar.
Vitthal reluctantly walked back down the corridor and disappeared into the darkness. Five minutes later, he appeared with an iron saliya in his hand. ‘Saheb, please don’t do anything that will get me into trouble,’ he pleaded.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll take full responsibility.’ Virkar jammed the saliya in the space between the latch and the wooden door. Using all his strength, he bore down on the saliya. A familiar creaking began to emanate from the point where the saliya made contact with the wood. Excited, Virkar gave a mighty kick to the door at a point just above the latch. With a loud crunch, the latch tore apart from the door, its rusted nails breaking under the impact of Virkar’s kick. Without wasting any time, he pushed open the door and barged in. Vitthal yelped with surprise at what they saw inside the room.
The single fifteen-by-fifteen room was lined with computers, routers and power supplies that were mounted on slotted-angle racks and were whirring and blinking away, working non-stop. The room was air-conditioned and the temperature was turned down to an uncomfortable degree. A bright and shiny iMac adorned a steel table in one corner of the room. Virkar reached for the drawers of the table and pulled them open. The top two drawers were empty but inside the third drawer he found a few blank papers, a crumpled colour-printed flyer and a compact automatic pistol. Virkar read the details on the flyer and then, as he quickly checked the gun, his face hardened into a mask. While Vitthal stood in the middle of the room with his mouth open, staring at the racks around him, Virkar reached for his mobile phone and dialled a number.