Warning! Read it before you fly!!

CHAPTER 1

Dubai International Airport

August13, 1:00 a.m. UAE Time

Most flights, reach most destinations, most of the time. But, he thought, some don’t, and this one won’t.

His chest swelled with pride and power as he studied the other passengers. All of them looked happy, probably going home for family reunions. They seemed so oblivious and ignorant, that he smirked at their stupidity.

His phone rang, and as he answered, a gentle voice jarred his ears.

“Great achievements need great sacrifices…” the caller said.

Bile rose in his stomach and a frown replaced his smug smile.

Whose sacrifice? For whose achievements?

“You’ll be a hero. We’ll remember you forever-”

He cut the call as furious thoughts exploded in his mind.

I’ve done my job, but the result would take time. If I stay here to watch, I’d be a dead hero. Why should I die with these people? I believe in the cause, they don’t; they deserve death, I don’t.

He stood up and called the Cabin Crew. “I must get out. My mother is serious. Just got a call.”

She nodded, stepped out, and returned with a man in a suit and tie.

“Hello, sir. I am Sachin, the duty officer. Family emergency, I believe? I’ll help you. Your boarding pass, please?”

As Sachin escorted him out of the aircraft, he looked back and sighed with relief, walking out of what was soon going to be a huge cylindrical coffin.

At the end of the aero-bridge, Sachin whispered to a police officer who let them pass.

A family of four stood at the boarding counter. A mother with a baby in her arms and a little girl holding her father’s hand. The father was arguing with the lady behind the counter.

“Airplane doors are not closed. He just came out, look!”

Sachin gave her the Business Class boarding pass. “Offload this checked-in bag, and in the meantime, let them board.”

“Thanks…” the father read his nameplate, “Sachin!”

“Thank him, not me.”

“Thank you, sir.” The father said, as the mother smiled in gratitude, and the baby seemed to wave to him.

He walked past them without acknowledgement.

“Thank you uncle,” the little girl chirped, “grandpa will not miss my birthday now.”

He stopped and turned. She held a pink purse in one hand and a doll in the other. She smiled as she peered at him through silky hair that fell over her eyes.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

“Thank you,” she giggled, “but, it’s tomorrow!”

He smiled and strode away.

Someone must make sacrifices, sure, but why make them yourself?


CHAPTER 2

Over the Arabian Sea

200 Nautical Miles West of Mumbai

3:30 a.m. UAE Time, 5:00 a.m. Indian Time

“AirPly 419, this is Mumbai radar.”

Only static crackled over the airwaves in the night sky.

“AirPly 419, do you read?”

“AirPly 419…?”

“SpiceJet 052, Mumbai radar.”

“Go ahead.”

“Please raise AirPly 419 on Guard frequency, 121.5 Megahertz.”

“Wilco, SpiceJet 052.”

“Radar, SpiceJet 052, no response on 121.5.”

“Are you getting any emergency transmission signals?”

“Negative. Could we help in any way?”

“Keep trying to raise AirPly 419 and report anything unusual.”


CHAPTER 3

E11, Dubai-Abu Dhabi Highway

5:30 a.m. UAE Time, 7:00 a.m. Indian Time

Few vehicles plied on the well-lit highway, and the traffic moved fast. One car moved faster than the rest, weaving through the lanes.

KK drove at 140 kilometres per hour, the maximum speed allowed. His muscular arms gripped the steering wheel as he sat upright, chin thrust forward, eyes scanning the road ahead. He ignored his perspiring forehead, till a bead of sweat trickled down his sharp nose. He wiped it with the cuff of a sleeve before passing his tongue over dry lips. His right foot itched to press the accelerator, but he controlled it to avoid over-speeding and attracting the police.

After months of tracking, this was his first opportunity to see the suspect. According to the informer, the suspect had only his mistress for company and no bodyguards.

A rare chance! KK thought. I must identify him today.

He smiled when he saw the silver Ford Explorer SUV shining in the streetlight, driving at a leisurely pace. His heart raced as he drove closer to read the licence plate, and he grinned when the registration matched the sticky note on his dashboard. Slumping into the seat, he slowed the car to stay far enough to avoid being spotted, yet close enough to keep the target in sight.

A vintage classic by ABBA began on the radio, and KK chuckled when he realised how well the song fitted him.

The winner takes it all; the loser’s standing small;

Beside the victory; that’s her destiny.

He had been a winner too, till the last mission that failed, just by a whisker…

When the song ended, KK switched off the stereo. After the loud music, he found the silence soothing. Now that there was no noise, save the soft scrubbing of rubber on the road, he could hear his heart pounding.

The ringing of his phone shattered the silence like a horrified scream in the night.

“Fuck!” KK reacted as the car swerved.

The girl sleeping in the adjoining seat stirred. KK glanced at the phone mounted on the dashboard. The call was from his immediate superior, the bureau-in-charge, Pillai.

He ignored the call, muted the phone, and patted the girl’s exposed thigh.

Pillai called again. Why the hell is he calling at this hour? KK answered the call on his Bluetooth earpiece.

“KK, where are you?”

“In hot pursuit.”

“Of whom?”

“Terror funding suspect.”

“Cancel that.”

“No way!”

“He’s not important.”

“To me, he is.”

“I know, but the Chief himself called your secure phone and couldn’t get you. Call him.”

“I’m so close…”

“Call him now.”

KK reduced speed, switched on the secure phone, connected it to his earpiece, and called the Chief. “Good morning, sir.”

“Did I wake you?”

Is there a hint of sarcasm? “No sir, I’m chasing a suspect.”

“Go to Dubai airport. An airplane is missing. One passenger had deplaned after boarding that flight. Find him and report.”

“I was going towards Abu Dhabi, sir. I’ll take the first turnoff and reach ASAP.”

“Hurry!”

KK looked at the two silhouettes in the car ahead. So close, yet out of reach.

He groaned and hit the steering wheel, which woke up the girl again.

“Sorry baby, you sleep.”

She smiled and closed her eyes.

KK glanced at the GPS display. The next turnoff, Exit 13, was five kilometres ahead and no other vehicles were nearby. He smiled, floored the accelerator and drove alongside the SUV to see the suspect.

That man noticed him and reduced speed. KK decelerated with him, turned right, and slammed the brakes, forcing the SUV to hit his right fender and stop.

KK switched on his phone camera and ran to the SUV. For a moment, he and the suspect eyed each other. Then, engine revving and tyres screeching, the SUV surged towards him.

Adrenalin pumping through his tensed body, KK sprang out of the way but kept filming as the SUV sped away.

Out of habit, he pulled out his Gen4 Glock semi-automatic pistol, but chuckled and holstered it. He knew he could burst a tyre in a single shot, but not now. Don’t offend the cops!

He uploaded the pictures of the SUV and his damaged car on the Police App with his location.

Now, the Police will help me find you. Soon, I’ll have a success, a triumph, to erase the memories of the last disaster.

KK jumped into his car and rushed to the airport. When passing by this way, he always slowed down after the Dubai Creek, to admire the Burj Khalifa. To him, it resembled a rocket about to lift-off beyond the mundane, something he had been itching to do. But today, he didn’t reduce speed. There was another opportunity waiting. Who knows where that might lead?

KK sighed. His mind drifted, remembering happier times.

A call on his unsecured number broke his reverie.

“Am I speaking to Mister… KK?”

“Yes.”

“Sir, I’m Sachin, calling from the airport.”

“Meet me outside Terminal 1, Arrivals, in thirty minutes please.”

He told Sachin his car number.

Before reaching Terminal One, KK stopped to let the girl out and handed her a wad of Dirhams without counting.

“But you did nothing.”

Oh, the sacrifices I have to make for this stupid job! KK thought. He had picked her up before the informer called, and now it was too late. He caressed her cheek.

“That’s for your wonderful company.”

She blew him a kiss and took out a burqa from her purse. She wore it over her skimpy dress and stepped out.

I’ll get my bang for the buck next time. KK laughed.


CHAPTER 4

Crisis Management Centre, New Delhi

Half an hour earlier, 6:30 a.m. Indian Time

The morning was dull, dark, and damp. Brooding clouds, that resembled mourning relatives at a burial, overpowered the rising sun’s attempt to bring cheer. Bolts of lightning highlighted the grim scene, and an occasional thunder sounded like a drum roll for the funeral march.

The windowless room mimicked a cave, and even a liberal spray of freshener did not mask the musty smell of long disuse. Anxious and annoyed people sat around the oval table that dominated the compact conference room.

India’s National Security Advisor sat at the head of the table, waiting for the Prime Minister’s Personal Assistant to hand him the secure phone.

Namaste, Ajay.” The PM’s voice rang over the speakerphone.

Namaste, sir. We have a problem. A civilian flight of ours from Dubai to Mumbai is out of contact.”

“Since?”

“Almost two hours now.”

The PM’s voice hardened. “Hijack?”

“No claim or confirmation yet.”

“Who is in charge?”

“Crisis Management Committee.”

“Can everyone hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep me updated, take care of the passengers and their relatives, and,” the Prime Minister paused, “don’t let the terrorists embarrass India as they did in 1999. Okay?”

“Yes, sir!”

The PM disconnected.

Looking at the people in the room, the NSA asked, “Does everyone here know what happened in 1999?”

A well-groomed, long-haired man raised his hand. “I don’t.”

“Are you from the airline?”

“I am the CEO, sir.”

The NSA looked around and rested his eyes on a smartly uniformed Air Force officer. “Please introduce yourself and tell him.”

The Air Force officer stood up. “I am Wing Commander Shamsher Khan, representing the Indian Air Force, with the Assistant Chief of Air Staff.” He nodded towards his boss. “We’re here to coordinate air defence and related military activity.”

He turned to the CEO. “In December 1999, terrorists hijacked IC 814, but fuel shortage forced them to land at Amritsar. That should have been the end of the hijack, but delayed decisions allowed them to refuel and fly to Kandahar in Afghanistan. After that, in exchange for the passengers, we had to release three terrorists, including Masood Azhar.”

Shamsher Khan, called Shammi in the Air Force where they have a nickname for everyone, sat down.

There was a long pause while everyone reconsidered the Prime Minister’s warning, “Don’t let the terrorists embarrass India.”

The NSA broke the silence. “DGCA?”

The Director General of Civil Aviation began, “The plane took off from Dubai at 2:58 a.m. India time, with 161 passengers and 6 crew on board. It should have contacted Mumbai radar before 5 a.m.” He paused and turned to the CEO. “Flight plan shows that the plane carried a lot more than the required fuel. Why?”

“It’s called tankering. Fuel is cheaper in Dubai, so we fill up,” the CEO replied.

“That’s smuggling, not tankering,” someone quipped, and a few chuckled.

Shammi threw an impatient glance at the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, who gestured to him to wait.

“Was everything normal in the plane before departure?” someone else asked the CEO.

Shammi raised his eyebrows. His boss nodded and Shammi stood up.

“Please allow me to interrupt, sir.”

The NSA smiled, while a few members exchanged surprised glances. Shammi brushed his close-cropped hair with his hand, although he knew, not a strand was out of place.

“An aircraft is missing. In control of madmen, it is a potent weapon with tonnes of fuel and metal to hit a target at extreme speeds, any moment now.”

“Any moment? Why haven’t they done it yet?” someone asked from the opposite end of the table. Shammi didn’t know him but guessed he was a hardened bureaucrat.

“I think they’re waiting for complete daylight. First, to hit their target with precision, and second, to get more eyeballs and cameras, while they hit a nuclear establishment or a well-known landmark.”

No one needed a reminder of the tragedy of the twin towers in New York.

“What is your area of expertise?” the same bureaucrat asked.

“I’m a fighter pilot, currently the Joint Director of Air Defence.”

Despite the situation, Shammi remembered a longstanding joke. How do you know there’s a pilot in the room? You don’t have to ask, he will tell you!

“We’ve launched Combat Air Patrols, which are pairs of armed fighter aircraft, to intercept the hostile intruder,” Shammi said while scanning the flight plan. “The aircraft had an endurance of five hours. It got airborne at 2:58 a.m. so it can fly till 8 a.m.” He paused and looked at the NSA. “Sir, I need to confirm these figures with the Ops Room. May I go out for a call?”

“Make the call here itself, please.”

Shammi finished the call and announced, “We’ll continue to patrol the skies till 8:30 a.m. When our fighters intercept the hijacked aircraft, they will order it to land. If it does not obey, we will shoot it down.”

The CEO gulped. “You’ll fire at a civilian airliner?”

“If the hijacked aircraft looks likely to cause destruction, the government can order the Air Force to shoot it down. This committee will have to seek that clearance without delay.”

Shammi nodded to the NSA and sat.

“Thank you, Wing Commander. If the need arises, I’ll get you the orders.” The NSA said and turned to the others. “Where were we?”

“I had asked if everything was normal in the plane before departure,” one member said.

“Everything was normal,” the CEO said, “except a minor thing. One passenger deplaned after boarding, because of a medical emergency.”

“You call that minor? They blew up an Air India flight with that trick in 1985. Did your staff carry out anti-sabotage checks after that passenger deplaned?”

“They did, as per my information.”

The NSA turned to the man on his left. “Send an officer to interview that passenger.”

Shammi guessed the NSA was talking to the Chief of Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW, the Indian equivalent of the American CIA.

“Yes, sir.” The Chief stood up.

“Call him from here itself.”

The Chief called. “Who do we have in Dubai?”

He frowned at the reply. “No one else there?” After a brief pause, he turned to the NSA. “There’s only one Field Officer there, and the Joint Secretary, Middle East, thinks he’s not right for the job.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember that fiasco in Kabul?”

The NSA nodded.

“He is the same man, KK. Shall we send someone from Abu Dhabi?”

“No time. Send him right away.”

The Chief spoke into the phone. “Send me his details. I’ll brief him myself.”

Why is the Chief unhappy with their officer in Dubai? Shammi wondered. And what does ‘KK’ mean? Do they still use code names in this day and age?


CHAPTER 5

At the airport, Sachin took a deep breath as soon as he sat in the car. KK quickly increased the air-conditioning to blow away the lingering smell of the girl’s perfume.

“Guide me to the address and tell me about that passenger.”

“I was at the boarding gate when the Cabin Crew told me that a Sikh passenger wanted to de-plane because his mother was ill. I asked the staff to offload his bag and carry out anti-sabotage checks. After escorting him to our office, I kept a scan of his passport and took him to the airport police, who verified his details.”

“Please describe that man.”

“He was a normal man.”

“Normal? Hey, come on, tell me more. Was he tall or short?”

“Mm… tall.”

“Fat or thin?”

“Big.”

“Use another word.”

“Hefty.”

KK took his eyes off the road and scowled at Sachin.

“What did he look like?”

“He wore spectacles.”

“That’s useful!”

“He had a beard, a moustache and a turban.”

What an idiot! KK thought.

“Wonderful description, but that applies to every Sikh man.”

Sachin hesitated before searching in his mobile phone.

“What? Are you looking for a thesaurus now?” KK asked.

“No. Without letting him know, I clicked his pictures and a video.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Please share them with me.”

So he’s not as stupid as I thought. KK smiled.

Sachin grinned and began the transfer.

“Did you chat with him?”

“He was nervous and talked little.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He said he was from Afghanistan, but the family is in India.”

“A Sikh man from Afghanistan! Did that surprise you?”

“No, because Sikhs are everywhere.”

The Sikhs in Afghanistan are different, KK knew. Generations had lived there for centuries, but had to leave because of ethnic violence.

“What sort of person was he?”

“A gentleman.”

Everyone is a gentleman, KK thought, till he turns out to be a terrorist.

“How long was he in the plane?”

“Ten, fifteen minutes.”

“What did he do?”

“I don’t know. I was at the boarding gate.”

“Have you called him?”

“Several times, but he’s not reachable. He must be in the hospital with his mother.”

When was I so innocent and trusting? KK wondered.

“Why did you click his pictures and videos?”

“I meet many types of passengers. Most are friendly, but a few behave as if they bought the airline when they bought a ticket. Often, they complain and the company demands an explanation, so I record everything unusual. In India, our company policy is to detain the deplaned passenger till the flight lands, but here we follow local rules.”

“What are the local rules?”

“Note the details and decide on a case-to-case basis. Since this was a medical emergency, I consulted the police, who let him go. This is not India. This is Dubai and they’ll catch him within half an hour!”

Let’s see. KK thought.

***

When they reached the address, KK parked close to the building for a quick getaway.

“Wait in the car.”

“Shouldn’t I come with you?”

“I prefer to work alone. Besides, it’s illegal and risky.”

“I could help.”

KK tapped the steering wheel. “Thanks. If I’m not back in twenty minutes, call the police, and return this car to the Consulate.”

KK looked at the time and rushed. On reaching the lobby of the cheap rental apartments, he tiptoed upstairs to the third-floor flat opposite the lift. He took a piece of paper from his purse, licked and stuck it in the peep-hole. Switching off the corridor lights, he rang the bell and moved away.

Nothing happened.

He rang the bell again, longer this time. On hearing noises inside, he pressed the lift button to summon it up and withdrew into the darkness of the stairwell.

The door opened, and a sleepy Sikh stepped out. The lift arrived on the floor and its door opened, flooding the man in light. Blinking in the brightness, he looked both ways and stood there, scratching his head. He wore only a vest and shorts, had large spectacles, but carried no weapon. He burped, looked both sides again, and turned back into his home.

Looks like an unlikely candidate for a terrorist, KK thought. Maybe a deliberate choice. Or is he a decoy for others waiting inside?

KK rang the bell again and as soon as the door opened, put his gun on the Sikh’s ear. The Sikh blurted out in surprise, but KK silenced him with a finger over the lips.

“Turn around. Who else is in the flat?”

“No one.”

KK locked the door behind him.

The apartment was shabby and smelled of stale spices.

“On your knees, raise your hands!”

Without turning his back to the Sikh, KK checked the two-room flat and stood pointing the gun at him.

“Your name?”

“Joginder Singh Kandahari. But, sir -”

“Nationality?”

“Afghan.”

Joginder burped again. KK scowled at the foul smell and stepped back.

“Sorry! I ate some stale food that upset my stomach.”

KK compared the man with the pictures given by Sachin. This one was thinner, younger, and more indoor type. “Where’s your passport?”

“In the briefcase under that table. But what happened?”

KK ignored him and compared the details. Everything in the passports was alike, except the photographs, which were similar but not alike.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“My dear mother passed away last year.”

“Any relatives in Dubai?”

“My cousin’s cousin was here, but he has shifted -”

“Have any friends or girlfriends here?”

“I cannot even -”

“Just answer my question.”

“No time and money for girlfriends.”

“Hmm.” KK thought for a moment. “Did you lose your passport?”

“No… yes, but I found it. Sir, what have I done?”

KK placed the gun back into his shoulder holster.

“You may stand up. I’m from the Indian Consulate. The police might want to question you.”

The man shivered. “Why?”

“Know this man?” KK showed the suspect’s picture to Joginder.

“No. His turban style is similar to mine, but I’ve never seen him. Who is he?”

“He used a brilliant copy of your passport, and stole your identity, with criminal intent.”

“Oh God! Police will kill me!”

“They’ll protect you till we find the fellow. Won’t be long, don’t worry.”

KK patted him on the shoulder to show solidarity, but that did not convince the Sikh.

“What if I run away?”

“How and where will you go? Think you could hide from Dubai Police?”

Burdened by the enormity of that question, Joginder collapsed into a chair. The chair broke, and he crashed to the floor. Wincing, he took KK’s offered hand, stood and limped a step forward, but stopped when he heard the wail of distant police sirens.

KK hurried to the door. “I’ll inform a friend in your embassy.”

“Thank you!” Joginder folded his hands in a gesture of Namaste, wincing again.

The innocents always get hurt, KK thought, as he closed the door behind him.

He strode to his car, increasing pace as the sirens got louder. He drove away, and soon after dropping Sachin, he called the Chief.


CHAPTER 6

Crisis Management Centre, New Delhi

Shammi connected his laptop to the projector and beamed a map on the screen.

“The airway runs west to east, over the Gulf of Oman, north of Muscat, and then over the Arabian Sea, to Mumbai. They flew out of Muscat radar cover as planned, and should have come into Mumbai radar cover some fifty minutes later.”

“Why are airplanes allowed to fly without radar?”

“A direct route is the fastest and most economical. All countries overfly all oceans without radar cover.”

“Don’t satellites track air traffic around the world?”

“Those systems are not operational yet.”

The NSA looked at the map. “What about Karachi radar?”

“Karachi radar provides cover to the flights going north, but those flying south are out of range.”

“How far can that plane go?” the Chief asked.

“After going out of Muscat radar cover, at 400 Knots in three hours, it can fly 1200 nautical miles or 2200 kilometres.”

“Even to Delhi?”

“In theory, yes, but we’ll intercept it well before that.”

“Isn’t there an emergency beacon on the plane?”

“Yes, sir. Emergency Locator Transmitter, or ELT, should activate if the aircraft crashes, but it has often failed in the past.”

“Did the flight send any distress signals?”

“No, I’m told.”

Some members nodded their agreement.

“Where could the airplane go?”

Shammi pointed to the map. “To the south, till The Maldives; to the west, Oman radars will notice it and in the east, our radars can track it. So, if the flight has not crashed, either they’re waiting to strike or have flown northwards.”

“Radars in Pakistan will see it. Right?”

“They might even guide it. Every hijacked Indian flight in the past has landed in Pakistan.”

There was silence as they considered the meaning.

“Is it possible to land on water?”

“Sully landed on the Hudson River without a single casualty, but landing on a choppy sea at night will be different.”

There was a long pause till the NSA spoke again. “Have we launched rescue missions?”

“Yes, sir. Search and Rescue aircraft are on the way to the area and ships will follow.”

“Thank you, Wing Commander.” The NSA looked at his watch. “Has the endurance of that plane finished?”

“I’ll confirm with the Ops Room, sir.”

After a brief call, Shammi announced, “A 9/11 like threat is over.”

Everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief, but it was short-lived because they now had to worry about the hijack or a crash.

“Let’s prepare a statement for the PM and get ready to help the families.” The NSA said. “Any news from our man in Dubai?”

The Chief smiled as his phone rang. “Here he is.”

“Put him on speakers, please.”

“KK here, sir. The man who deplaned had a forged passport, and a stolen identity. I think he did something on board that affected the flight.”

“Hmm.”

“Sir, I want this mission.”

Shammi remembered the RAW Chief’s words. “The Joint Secretary, Middle East, thinks he’s not right for the job.”

If he isn’t good enough to even start the investigation, how dare he ask for the mission?

“You want what?” the Chief seemed surprised.

“I want the job of finding and liquidating him.”

“No! This is not the time or place. Proper channels, please.” The Chief replied with dignified authority and cut the call.


CHAPTER 7

“No! No! No!”

The Chief’s refusal echoed in KK’s head like a bullet bouncing inside a huge bell. A flame of anger rose through him.

He gripped the phone tightly, stared at it like it was a live snake, and threw it into the adjacent seat. He sighed and rested his head on the steering wheel.

A request through the proper channels would go to the Joint Secretary, Sankaran Manian, or Mani, who will never recommend him.

I’ll find him before Mani and his cronies, KK decided. He crashed the gears and raced to his office.

He sent the pictures and the video to Delhi, texted his friend in the Afghan Consulate about Joginder and, despite overpowering sleep, started searching the database.

‘Limited access!’ A message screamed on the screen in bold red.

He banged the table. A few things jumped and scattered. His laptop’s mouse slipped from the table and dangled by its wire, like a hanging man.

I’d love to find and hang him! Give me the mission. Give me a break from paperwork!

***

KK could not control sleep anymore, so he drove to his house. He didn’t call it home, because he had never had a home, neither here, nor anywhere else. The house was minimalistic and bare, like him. Nothing unnecessary, nothing to develop attachments to, nothing to hang on to. Just enough to live and carry in two suitcases, plus a backpack.

After a shower, he stood naked in front of the mirror, watching himself. Long, wavy hair crowned a handsome face and a tall, rugged body. His muscular physique was perfect, marred only by the ugly scar made by a bullet on the inside of the left thigh.

He never let it show in public, but the girls he’d been with had unanimously found it sexy, the mark of a macho man. He too was proud of it as it reminded him of his action days. The wound throbbed every time his mind was in turmoil, as if it had an emotional connection with him beside the physical one.

KK watched and moved his muscles one by one. The muscles were strong and taut. He was fit and hungry for action, a lean-mean-fighting-machine; yet he was forced to waste his time and talents in paperwork and clerical jobs.

Oh god, I want this mission!

He tensed his muscles, let out a silent scream, dived into his bed, and fell asleep.

***

Upon waking up, he called his boss.

“Not landed anywhere, and no group has claimed any responsibility.” Pillai said.

“And the missing man?”

“Nothing. Dubai Police arrested a suspect, but that we know is the innocent victim.”

“Any news from Delhi for me?”

“No.”

KK yawned. Why am I trying so hard? Why not just go back to sleep?

He got ready, reached the office, and called his contact in Dubai Police to get the grabs of the suspect from Airport security cameras.

His contact called back, saying his superiors wanted a formal request for information from government to government. Frustrated, KK drafted a formal request and sent it to Pillai.

He searched the records of all resident Sikhs in UAE using Pillai’s access, but despite working late, did not find a reasonable match.

I must go to Delhi and use the vast resources at the headquarters. But how?

August 14

The next day, KK met Ranbir Singh, a successful entrepreneur and a prominent leader of the Sikh community in Dubai.

Sat Sri Akal.”

Sat Sri Akal, KK! I hear that suspect and the pilot, both are Sikhs. Right?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think this has a Khalistan angle?”

He was referring to the now-dormant separatist movement of the 1980s.

“It’s a possibility…”

“What can I do for you?”

“What we’ll discuss is confidential.”

Ranbir nodded, and KK showed him a picture of the suspect on his phone. “Seen this man?”

Ranbir took the phone from him, zoomed in and out several times, and shook his head.

“I don’t think so, but I meet many people daily. Who is he?”

“He may know the fate of that airplane.”

“We have fifty thousand Sikhs in the UAE, so it is difficult, but I can share the picture.”

“Is it possible that he’s not a Sikh, but is only sporting a beard and wearing a turban?”

“Show me that picture again.”

KK showed him the video. Ranbir played it thrice, pausing often.

“His turban looks genuine, well tied.”

“Could someone else have tied it for him?”

“Yes. By any expert man.”

“Can’t a woman tie it?”

“Children learn from their fathers, or gents in the family, and all professionals are men.”

“Do you know any professionals here?”

“Many. Hundreds teach that online too.”

“Would a non-Sikh be able to tie the turban?”

“Only a Sikh can tie the turban like a Sikh. It takes practice to wear it right every time.”

“How does this one look?”

“Looks authentic, so, either he’s a Sikh, or he has taken professional help. Give me the pictures and the video and I’ll circulate them among our groups.”

“Can’t share them without permission from Delhi, but I’ll get that soon. I want to talk to the Gurudwara staff. Can you help?”

“Sure, I’ll tell them to expect you.”

“Thank you.”

***

KK drove to Guru Nanak Darbar in Jebel Ali. As per the custom, he covered his head with his handkerchief before entering. He stood with his head bowed and prayed for a minute before meeting the management.

Nobody had seen the man. KK wondered if the suspect was agnostic, or not a Sikh, or did not live in Dubai.

There were other, smaller Gurudwaras in UAE, but he decided against visiting them. It would be faster and more convenient to share the suspect’s pictures.

He called Pillai. “Sir, no luck. We must share the suspect’s pictures.”

“Delhi has denied permission.”

***

KK reached the office, wrote a detailed analysis, and sent it to the headquarters.

There’s nothing more I can do here. I must go to Delhi and join the investigation, but I don’t know how.

***

Pillai called on the intercom.

“Baldev Yadav is the leader of the investigating team.”

KK frowned. Baldev, with his political connections, was Mani’s blue-eyed boy.

He’ll be a hero while I remain a pen pusher, forever in the background, ignored and forgotten. Unless… I find the missing man before him.

That evening, KK was busy researching when Pillai called him. He hurried to his boss’s office where an Indian TV channel’s ticker said:

“Breaking News: PM to announce a deadline to find the terrorist.”

Pillai muted the TV.

“Opposition parties and the media demanded a deadline. The PM will announce it tomorrow during his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort. The entire country is in a frenzy. They want immediate answers!” Pillai shook his head. “Any luck with the terror funder?”

“No, sir. I’ll get back to him later, but first, the missing man!”

***

A call from Mani, the Joint Secretary, surprised KK.

“Good evening, sir.”

“I like your analysis. Want to join the team in Delhi?”

KK couldn’t believe his ears. “Yes, sir!”

“Email a formal request.”

“Thank you very much, sir.”

KK emailed within minutes and walked grinning into Pillai’s office.

“Mani invited me to Delhi. My report has worked!”

“Let me guess. Has Baldev found that man and is unwilling to risk his precious neck going after him? Is the mission too dangerous?”

“I don’t mind. Love the adrenaline.”

The thought of having to work under Baldev, his junior before the Kabul episode, clouded KK’s happiness, but he consoled himself.

I’ll suffer that fool as the price for getting back into action!

August 15

KK woke up early and checked for Mani’s reply to his email, but there was none. He bought a ticket to Delhi for the first available flight.

While getting ready, he didn’t shave. Better grow a beard, he decided. A useful tool to merge in the crowd.

At the airport, KK saw a news notification on his phone: ‘Prime Minister announces a six-week deadline from 13th August.’

Day three today and only thirty-nine days to go.

After completing the check-in, he called Mani.

“Yeah?”

“Good morning, sir. I had sent you an email yesterday.”

“You can come tomorrow.”

Bloody bureaucrat! KK thought. With a deadline looming, shouldn’t he be in a hurry?

“I’m already at the airport.”

“Extra smart, as ever!”

KK remained silent.

“See me at nine-thirty tomorrow and don’t talk to anyone in the office before that.”

Have they already found the suspect? KK frowned as he thought. Why not talk to anyone before meeting Mani? Were they keeping it a secret even within the establishment?

This sounds suspicious, yet exciting. But I want it. I need it. KK smiled to himself.

He counted the time he had been away from Delhi. Nine months in Dubai after his discharge from the hospital, and two years in Afghanistan before that, after the breakup with Avani.

Avani! His mercurial, beautiful girlfriend, who was no longer his.

KK felt an inexplicable tinge deep down in his heart.

What is that? Anger, sadness, or regret? Why the hell should I moan for her?

She had sent a few emails, but he hadn’t bothered to check them, let alone reply. He had just ignored her till the emails stopped. But her memories didn’t. He had often thought of her when he was out of action, lying in a hospital in Delhi, recovering from his wounds. He had thought of calling her, but hadn’t, because he didn’t want her to think he sought sympathy. After his grandparents, she was the only person he had ever been close to. At least that’s what he had believed, till she married that chubby hotelier who was so different from him. Once, he had wanted to murder his rival, but dropped the idea, because that wouldn’t have brought her back. Now he could laugh at his own craziness. Yes, the pain had subsided. Her memories didn’t bother him anymore.

KK wondered how she might be. She wasn’t in the news often anymore, although she featured in a few advertisements, flashing her lovely smile. Is she happy and settled in domestic bliss? Mother of one or two? Does she also laugh at their passionate relationship and explosive break up? What if he called her? Or emailed?

On a whim, he did what he had not done in over two years. He searched for her old, unread emails on his phone.

“Hi KK, where are you? Your phone is not reachable. Want to meet you. Call me.”

What a cryptic, dry tone, with no hint of feelings or apology!

He read all her emails. A few sounded desperate, and the last one warned she would never contact him again.

What should I do? Forgive and forget?

He decided to write an email and test her response. Had dull domesticity bored her? Would she jump at the opportunity of romancing a former lover? He would woo her to make that hotelier jealous and gain a pleasant diversion from work. Two for the price of one!

He stared at the blank screen for a long time before typing two words.

“Dear Avani.”

How does one address an ex-girlfriend years after a bitter fight?

Can one call another man’s wife as ‘Dear’?

“Hi Avani, I’m coming to Delhi after a long time. Want to meet?”

He added his current mobile number and emailed her, after which he kept wondering how she would react. Will she call? Does she read her emails? Is this email address even in use anymore?

His heart raced in anticipation, and he wondered why he was behaving like a clumsy teenager. He laughed at himself and at the irony of the two adventures he was starting. He wanted the terrorist, and he craved Avani too. Both quests could take unexpected turns and just end up as dead ends. Yet, he hoped, both result in success, satisfaction, and easing of his pain.

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