New Delhi. December 2019
The conference room of the Northern Railway Headquarters in New Delhi was jam-packed. The security was tight and very much visible as the minister of railways was the Chief Guest. It was a farewell function for Mr. Sundaresan, who was retiring as General Manager after over three decades of meritorious service. He was well respected in government circles because of his dedication to work as well as mild and pleasing manners. Nobody was surprised when the cabinet minister himself readily agreed to preside over the function.
There were the usual platitudes by the railway Board members, secretary, and both the cabinet minister and the minister of state. Sundaresan rose up to address the gathering. In an emotion-choked voice, he related how he joined the railways as a junior engineer and rose up in the ranks. When he sat down there was a standing ovation. Meenakshi, his wife, sitting in the front row next to the minister’s wife had mixed emotions of sadness as well as relief that they can spend their evening years in quiet and peace. He was given many going-away presents.
After the function, they were dropped at the luxury condominium belonging to his only daughter, Sumathi in a prestigious society in Gurgaon. Both Sumathi and her husband Bhaskar were highly paid software professionals, working for the same multinational giant. They had an adorable daughter of 12 and a highly active 9-year-old son.
They were not surprised when they found the house locked up with no lights. Their children might be visiting neighbors or must be held up in the office as was the case often. Sundaresan opened the door with his set of keys which he got when they vacated their official quarters in Lutyens Delhi a week ago. Just as he was about to switch the lights on, the whole house lit up. A whole bunch of people shouted at the top of their voices,” Happy retirement Day,” adding appropriate forms of address, such as ‘Uncle”, ‘Sundaresan’, etc. There was a huge cake with bells and whistles. Meenakshi smiled conspiratorially at her daughter.
After everyone had left, the children were sent off to bed with kisses and good nights. the four adults sat down on the comfortable sofas. Bhaskar hummed and hawed, trying to say something. Sumathi took over and said, “Dad and Mom, we have some big news. Both of us have been posted to our New Jersey head office with higher designations and obscene salary packages. We are given a penthouse apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline. School admissions have been arranged for the kids. “
“Oh no, we had been planning to enjoy our sunset days with you all. Why didn’t you give even an inkling of this?” said Sundaresan. Meenakshi was flabbergasted into absolute silence.
Bhaskar. by now, had found his voice and said,” We did not want to disturb your state of mind, what with retirement and all. We have some time off and have to report for duty in the first week of the new year.”
They kept talking well into the small hours and retired to their respective bedrooms, tired and emotionally drained.
Gurgaon. March 2020
Sumathi and her family had settled down in the united states. They had just beaten the travel ban imposed by the US government. Coronavirus was increasingly assuming pandemic proportions. Mr. Modi announced a nationwide shutdown on March 24. The elderly couple dutifully abided by the restrictions. The only exception was their occasional visit to Kanchanamala in the nearby condominium who was a famous tarot card reader and a diviner. She was a childhood friend of Meenakshi and they had studied together at the Holy Angels convent in Madras, as it was called in those days.
Kanchanamala lived with her companion Sheila and an adorable 2-year-old German Shepard named aptly, Adonis. Adonis was red-black with a medium coat. He had a black mask and a classic black “saddle”. He was about 2 feet tall and about 2 ½ feet long. His domed forehead, long square-cut muzzle, strong jaws, and black nose certified his pedigree. His long neck raised when he was excited, whether in greeting Kanchanamala and her friends or when encountering a hostile presence. Kanchanamala particularly enjoyed watching him run in the meadows with his neck lowered almost touching the ground. He raced like a thoroughbred horse.
March 2020. Somewhere in Afghanistan.
The head of Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Zafargoli Husseini was nervous. He had a one-to-one meeting with the head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri in an isolated compound in the thick forest area adjoining the Tangai Ghar mountain.
Zawahiri scowled at Husseini and remarked, “I hope you have made the preparations. Hope the Corona situation will not interfere with our plans.”
“I have secured a remote area in the Aravalli range close to the Indian National Capital Region. Luckily, we finished all the construction before this pandemic. We have built barracks to hold 45 mujahideen and trainers. We have a shooting range all suitably camouflaged. There is an old villa with lawns and gardens. We are going to kidnap an old couple and make them live here. They will divert all the snoopers.
“The area behind the cottage will be secured with guards and electric fencing. All are suitably concealed. Exactly seven months from now, three days after the Independence Day, we shall strike. Having conducted the celebrations incident-free, the security apparatus will be letting their guard down.”
“All the required finances are secure and the supply chain is assured. All human movements will be minimal. The sleeper cells are on high alert and can be activated at short notice.
This operation will be as successful if not more spectacular than the attack in 2008. “
“Good job. Husseini. I have alerted our underground workers and financiers across the border. You will be fully supported. Go in peace”
“Thank you, Chief”
Interpol Headquarters, Paris. March 2020
Chief Inspector, Investigation, Indian National Bureau, Ashok Kumar Jaiswal was sitting in front of the Chief of Intelligence, Interpol Headquarters, France. An Orange Notice has been issued to warn of a major terrorist against multiple targets in India towards the later part of the year. The window was from July 15th to October 31st. Jaiswal was provided with a dossier.
After a 10-hour session with the intelligence unit on various aspects of the imminent threat and armed with a 2 TB disc containing all sorts of intelligence, Jaiswal rushed back to New Delhi
March 2020, New Delhi
A top-secret meeting chaired by the National Security Adviser was conducted in a safe house under the control of IB in some undisclosed location. All the attendees had Z plus security. They were taken to the location by diverse modes of transport depending on where each one originated from. All movements were handled exclusively by the IB. All agencies like RAW, IB, NIA, and Intelligence units of tri-services were suitably represented.
After deliberations over two days, a special task force was constituted headed by CI Jaiswal. He was temporarily reverted back to the Indian Government with police powers. They got down to business immediately. Everyone volunteered to work 24 x 7 until the threat was neutralized.
March 2020, Gurgaon
Sundaresan was feeling poorly for a couple of days running temperature and coughing badly. Meenakshi rushed to their family doctor in Defense Colony. He ordered an RT-PCR test and it was confirmed that he had contracted Covid. Sundaresan as a senior central government retiree was entitled to treatment at AIIMS under Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS). After intensive therapy, he was discharged and sent home. A senior doctor talked to Meenakshi giving her detailed instructions.
Meenakshi hired a 12-hour nursing attendant to take care of Sundaresan during the daytime. They had a reliable cook working between 8 am and 8 pm. For the next seven days, she would leave the apartment at 10 O clock and return at around 7 pm, dead on her feet.
On the seventh day, she called Kanchanamala at about 8.30 pm. The nursing attendant and the cook had left for the day. Meenakshi, almost in tears, told her, “My husband had been very ill and the doctor was insistent that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country if he was to get strong again. So, I was feverishly house-hunting. Of course, I had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding with all of them. I don’t know what to do”
Kanchanamala rushed to Meenakshi’s apartment with Adonis in tow. She visited Sundaresan, who was lying in his bed. He was having a nose mask, which was connected to an Automatic Positive Airway Pressure machine. Meenakshi explained that it helps him breathe easier. There was a powerful air purifier running noiselessly. Kanchanamala talked to him in a soothing voice as if she was pronouncing an incantation. Sundaresan drifted off to sleep and the two ladies retired to the living room.
Kanchanamala produced a pack of tarot cards. She drew a few cards, studying each one intently. She said in a somber tone, “I see a lot of trouble ahead. I definitely see a change of location. However, you will be supported by a close friend of yours in what is going to be a traumatic period.”
“Of course, it is you I shall rely on, Kanchanamala. I have nobody else. How badly I miss Sumathi and Bhasker. I talk to her every day. But they are stuck due to the lockdown. I don’t know what would I do without your calming presence.”
“What else are friends for, Meenakshi? By the way, one of my clients said that a brand-new realtor had opened his office in sector 9. Maybe we should give him a try. I shall pick you up tomorrow at about eleven.”
The next morning, they entered the Golden Globe Estate Agency. It was an impressive office space in a busy mall. The reception area was decorated with understated elegance. A smiling girl greeted them and after ascertaining their requirement, spoke on the intercom. After putting down the receiver, she escorted them to a well-appointed cabin. The nameplate on the door read, ‘Ashwin Galhotra, Director’. The girl knocked gently and held the door for the two ladies to enter.
Seated behind a modest-looking desk that broadcasted elegance and expense was a man in his early thirties, dressed in formal clothes. He stood up and welcomed them enthusiastically. He asked the girl to send coffee and biscuits. He handed each of them a simple-looking handcrafted business card.
Meenakshi introduced herself and Kanchanamala and described her background and the urgent need for a place with clean air. After carefully listening to Meenakshi, Ashwin smiled broadly. “I think, I may have just the place for you. It is nestled in the lower heights of the Aravalli hills, away from both Faridabad and Gurgaon. It is an old haveli with all modern fittings. It is part of a sprawling estate. The owners are multi-billionaires with operations all over the globe. They do not care for the returns, but they want decent folks who will maintain the property. I shall talk to their personal assistant, who is placed in the US later in the evening and will get back to you. Please leave your contact details with Rucha at the reception. “
As soon as the door closed behind them, Ashwin rose with alacrity and used a remote control to electronically lock the door. He put on what appeared to be some electronic jamming equipment. He removed a painting hanging on the wall and electronically unlocked a sophisticated safe. He removed a satellite phone
He pressed a single button on the phone and waited nervously while it rang several times. Eventually, someone answered in a gruff voice, “what do you have Suleiman?”
“Sir, I think we have the right people we were looking for.”
In a nervous voice filled with fear and respect in equal measures, he described the nature and position of Meenakshi and Sundaresan. He listened intensely as the voice at the other end spoke for several minutes. After polite salutations, he switched off the phone, more relieved than happy.
After a couple of days, Ashwin called Meenakshi and said he is ready to take her to view the property.
Meenakshi said,” My friend had persuaded me that she should stay with me for the period of my husband’s convalescence period. She also has a gentle pet dog, who will live with us. So, all of us would like to see the property. We will be having a nurse attendant and a cook living with us as well”
Ashwin was momentarily taken aback, but quickly covered his consternation and fixed a suitable time to pick them up the next day. He, however, cautioned, “with the change in the requirement, I have to get an okay from my client, which may only be a formality. Final terms and conditions can be worked out later.”
The next morning, Ashwin arrived at Meenakshi’s place in a Toyota Fortuner which he drove himself. All of them piled into it with Adonis majestically occupying the rear compartment.
Quickly they reached the Ghat road between Gurgaon and Faridabad. Ashwin suddenly took a turn onto an apparently deserted narrow road. Soon they were in a thickly wooded area. He stopped the car. Without displaying the alarm she felt, Kanchanamala asked in a stern voice, “Ashwin, where have you brought us?”
Before he could answer a Humvee appeared behind them, closely followed by a Range Rover. A few soldier types with obvious Afghan looks descended upon them. One of them expertly muzzled and chained Adonis before he could react. An obvious ringleader relieved them of their phones and they were all bundled into the Humvee. He handed out a blindfold to each of them and instructed them in thickly accented English to put them on. Each one of them was handcuffed to the door nearest to them. The muffled Adonis was suitably restrained. The two-car convoy roared to a start leaving the bemused but largely relieved Suleiman aka Ashwin behind.
After an hour of highly skilled, hair-raising ride through the hilly train, the convoy came to a stop. In front of them stood a large two-storied townhouse with a well-manicured lawn and a flower garden. It looked anything but sinister.
The leader instructed them to call him ‘Commander’ and led them inside the house. He seated them in a well-furnished living room.
“Don’t be alarmed. You are going to be our honored guests for the time being. You will be completely free. You can walk out anytime you want, but you will not get anywhere. A cook and a medical orderly will attend to all your needs. All provisions will be provided to you. You see, I want you to be a front for us. We have our setup in the vast wooded area behind this dwelling where we will carry out our operations.”
Kanchanamala questioned, “what will prevent us from running away and taking our chances in finding our way back to civilization?”
“Ah, after some refreshments, I have planned a video show for you. After seeing that, you will be more than happy to behave.”, guffawed the commander.
They were dreading what was to come. They were barely nibbling at the food set before them. They were puzzled about the commander giving them a free run. Adonis was chained to the staircase rails.
In a little while, a gruff-looking youngster in army fatigues blindfolded them and escorted them into the woods. When their blindfolds were removed they were in front of a modern building. Even though they had walked only a short distance, the original villa was not visible nor was the mud road in front of it. They were ushered inside to what appeared to be a state-of-the communication center. It seated about 20 and had a lectern. The audiovisual equipment indicated it can double as a training room.
The Commander was standing at the lectern and indicated them to their seats. He pressed a button in the remote control he held in his hand. A screen lighted up.
The first picture was a collage. A gasp escaped from Sundaresan and Meenakshi. Their family in America smiled up at them. What followed was nothing short of a nightmare. The adults were shown on the way to and at their offices; the kids at school.
“We have people keeping a 24-hour watch on your people. There are surveillance cameras on every part of their apartment and workplaces. We can pick them up at a moment’s notice. They will all disappear without a trace at my say-so.
” So, behave, all of you. Let Mr. Sundaresan recuperate. We need you all as a cover just for a short period. Then you will be honorably discharged.
” Miss Kanchanamala, your mutt seems to be well behaved. We will give him a free run of the grounds in front of the villa. He better not go anywhere near the backyard fence. It is electrified. If we find him misbehaving in any way, we will execute him without batting an eyelid. Do I make myself clear?”
The days passed. Sundaresan was recovering fast. With the pure and fresh mountain air, his respiratory system regained its full functionality. The medical orderly was a polite young man, who was as courteous as he was efficient. The cook looked like a Punjabi and provided them vegetarian food with paneer and dhals predominating his menu. These two maintained a strict schedule and would promptly disappear into what seemed to be the training barracks of this well-organized group. They seemed to be a dedicated lot with the sole aim of creating mayhem all over India. The commander graced them with his menacing presence every day.
Adonis was thriving. He seemed to understand the situation and put on the appearance of a dumb mutt, carefully hiding his uncanny intelligence behind his eyes. He somehow made them appear dull never letting their sparkle show. He had the run of the grounds in front of the house. Nobody prevented him when he wandered as far as the hilly road.
New Delhi, March 2020
Sheila was getting worried. Kanchanamala and Adonis had gone to view a potential place in the hills for Meenakshi. She had expected them to be back by early evening at the latest. She would have received several calls from Kanchanamala by now. It was 11 pm and still no word from her. With great hesitation, she dialed their close friend and well-wisher, Chief Inspector Jaiswal.
Jaiswal, who answered the call sleepily, was shocked into full alertness when he heard what Sheila had to say. He woke his wife Madhu, briefly explained the situation to her. He said he will stop by at Kanchanamala’s and pacify Sheila. He would then spend the rest of the night in his office as it tied up with something very important. Madhu quickly gave him a strong cup of coffee and biscuits and saw him off. Worried about her friend and Adonis, she tossed and turned on her bed all night.
Jaiswal found Sheila in tears and emotionally shattered. He calmed her down and attempted to draw out as much information from her despite her incoherence. He gathered that along with Kanchanamala and Meenakshi, Sundaresan had also gone to inspect the property. She gave him the card of the estate agency that arranged the viewing. Assuring her that he will bring them all back safe and sound, he rushed to his office. As he knew the Sundaresans personally through Kanchanamala, he worried about the precarious state of Sundaresan’s health.
He presumed correctly that this has to be what the Paris Interpol chief had briefed him about. The would-be terrorists must have taken his friends hostage. He gathered a team of rapid action force and rushed to the estate agency. He was surprised to see lights blazing in the agency office in the otherwise darkened office complex.
He peremptorily knocked on the door shouting, ” Open up, Police!” Hearing frenzied movement inside, he ordered the door to be broken open. They caught Ashwin with the safe open, fumbling with a remote. He reached him in long strides and grabbed the device before he could operate it. The satellite phone staring at him from the safe nestled amongst bundles of currencies of multiple denominations and nationalities did not surprise him one bit. Instructing his deputy to catalog every single item and secure the agency, he rushed to his office dragging a frightened Ashwin along.
He wanted to assure himself that Sundaresan’s daughter and family were safe. He contacted his counterpart at the FBI and apprised him of the situation. He passed on all the information he had about Sumathi and Bhaskar and their place of work. The FBI officer assured him that he will be able to trace them and promised to revert back at the earliest.
While awaiting word from the states, he interrogated Ashwin. He warned him that if he does not cooperate, he will simply disappear from the face of the earth as there is no record of his presence in the agency headquarters.
Using minimal coercion, Ashwin confessed that his real name was Suleiman. He was basically in logistics and not a hardened operative terrorist. In no time, he started singing like a canary. He said he was asked to find an elderly couple looking for a place. He was managing international funds for local distribution. He was given the bank details of the intended beneficiaries. He was arranging Havala transactions, money conversions and dispatches. All the details were in the safe. He was about to detonate an implanted charge to destroy the safe and contents but Jaiswal had been too quick for him.
Jaiswal enquired him about the place where the hostages were placed. He said he can take them to the transfer point but nothing beyond that.
Jaiswal organized an urgent meeting of the Special Task Force. All the intelligence will be collated and analyzed by a crack team from RAW, the Research and Analysis Wing. Rescue as well as assault operations will be handled by Black Commandoes, an elite force comprised of trained personnel drawn from the tri-services. All Interpol information will be collected by Jaiswal and handed over to the RAW team. The entire operation was codenamed Tangerine.
FBI had responded very quickly. Sundaresan’s family members were being stalked by local overground workers of Al Qaeda. It was easy to pick them off. They were not very much trained in spy craft but were completely indoctrinated and swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. FBI moved Bhaskar and his family to a safe house in an undisclosed location. The operatives had reported to their Afghan handler just an hour before they were picked up. They had to report every 24 hours. Jaiswal had just about a 22-hour window to evacuate the hostages and neutralize the entire terror camp. Any delay would have disastrous consequences.
While the deliberations were on, Suleiman led a team to the place in Aravalli Hills where the hostage transfer took place. With data derived from multiple satellites, a series of six farmhouses were shortlisted. Looking at the recent construction activity, the exact location of the terror camp had been determined. Chief Detectives Malini and Rajkumar were dispatched to the site with a mission to inform the hostages that their people were safe and sound in the US as well as extract them to safety. They had been fully briefed about Meenakshi, Sundaresan, Kanchanamala, and Adonis including their photographs.
Terror camp in Aravalli Hills
All three of them had just finished breakfast. Adonis had gone out on his usual wanderings. Just as he emerged from the bushes to the mud road, he sighted a hippie couple. He charged at them and just as he neared them, he changed his stance and wagged his tail in a friendly gesture. Malini and Rajkumar recognized Adonis. They petted him and as they were aware of how intelligent he was, they spoke to him in friendly and assuring mode. They attached a note to the inner coat of Adonis and sent him off with a gesture of urgency. Adonis needed no further encouragement and dashed off to the villa.
As he entered the living room, he noticed that the medical orderly was having a physical therapy session with Sundaresan. He coolly retired to the backyard. He was lazily digging in the corner when he felt something. He darted a glance towards the house and seeing no alarming signs, explored some more. He found a corner of a trap door. Controlling his excitement as only a super-intelligent human will do, he went back to the living room. He patiently waited until the therapy session was over and the orderly promised to return the next day.
He waited long enough to forestall any unexpected return of the orderly and then approached Kanchanamala and indicated by vigorous body movements and controlled growls that there was something unusual. Puzzled at his behavior, Kanchanamala attempted to calm him down by vigorously rubbing his back. She found something unusual about his coat and examined him closely. Lo, she found the small bit of paper. It read: “Meet us at exactly 12 noon. Adonis will guide you. Password is Chief Inspector’s name”
Now Adonis was behaving even more strangely. He was pulling Kanchanamala by her robe. All three of them followed him and found the trap door. Kanchanamala had no idea what was going on. It was getting close to the appointed hour. She gestured Adonis to lead her. They reached the mud road at the stroke of the noon hour.
Kanchanamala heard a hissing noise behind some bushes a few meters away. She tiptoed into the thicket away from the road. A pair of hippies emerged.
“We work for Chief Inspector Jaiswal. I am Chief Detective Malini and he is Chief Detective Rajkumar. Bhaskar and his family have been moved to a safe house away from the terrorists under the protection of the US FBI. We have to find a way to move you without attracting the attention of your handlers”
Kanchana disclosed Adonis’s discovery of the trap door. The detectives were excited. They asked about the routine at the house. The terrorists left them to their own devices with the threat to their kin’s safety. The cook and the orderly had gone for the day and were not expected until the next morning.
Without wasting any time, Malini and Raj accompanied Kanchanamala and Adonis to the Villa. Quickly the earth covering the trapdoor was removed and the door opened. There were steps leading down to a tunnel. All of them stepped into it with Malini leading them. Raj stayed behind, closed the door, and replaced the mud making sure that there was no evidence of recent disturbances. He carefully retreated to the bushes awaiting Malini’s communication.
It was an hour before Malini reported that the tunnel opened into the backyard of the neighboring villa. The trap door over there had deteriorated as it had lain exposed to the elements. They got out easily and were comfortably ensconced in the deserted house. Things moved with lightning speed thereafter. Working silently and efficiently, a rescue team evacuated the hostages to an undisclosed urban area. They were bemused at the hectic activity and before they knew it, they were placed in a safe house with all conveniences and attendants. Sundaresan and Meenakshi were delighted when Sumathi contacted them via a video call.
After a week, they were back at their respective condos in Gurgaon. The northern Railway assigned Sundaresan a cottage in Shimla as he was entitled to accommodation due to his position. The intelligence agencies will be watching over the safety of all of them. Meenakshi was busy in packing and preparing for the long-awaited move.
New Delhi, April 2020
After a few days, Madhu, Jaiswal’s wife arranged a dinner for Kanchanamala, Meenakshi, and Sundaresan. Naturally, Adonis was to be the chief guest. Jaiswal had been away all these days and had just returned.
When they all assembled in the drawing room of CI Jaiswal’s house over tea and refreshments, Kanchanamala said in a threatening voice., “Now, out with it, You secretive young man. What was this all about?”
There was a pin drop silence as Jaiswal started his narration and continued for several minutes.,
“There was a sinister conspiracy by the Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent to launch simultaneous attacks on important installations in all major cities in India. Behind the villa where you were held hostage, they had a terrorist camp with all men in place and well trained. They were all ready to strike in a few days. Their higher ups were antsy about hikers stumbling on their hideout and exposing their evil designs. They wanted you people, as a front, so that any intruders can be distracted. They were sure that with your family under threat in the US, you will not give them away. They underestimated Adonis and took him to be a harmless, spoiled mutt.
“After you were rescued, a combined operation was mounted by the elite forces of our country. We struck before they even knew that you had gotten away. In spite of the element of surprise and a huge advantage in terms of numbers and firepower, they fought to the last man. It was a bruising battle lasting five days until the last of them were neutralized. We lost a few gallant young men and women. But their sacrifice was not in vain. A huge moral and economic disaster was averted. Had they succeeded in their design, India’s progress would have been set back by several years.
“And last but not least, Adonis is to be sent for three weeks’ special training at the National Training Center for Dogs at Bhanu near Chandigarh starting tomorrow.”
Adonis shook his head vigorously in approval.
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