Thu
Jun 19 2014 2:45pm

Weapon of Vengeance: A New Excerpt

Mukul Deva

Weapon of Vengeance by Mukul Deva is an internation thriller set in India where a father, after years of not seeing his daughter, begins to suspect she's the terrorist he's been hunting (available June 24, 2014).

Ruby Gill is a rogue MI6 agent, the daughter of an Indian father and Palestinian mother. Her mission is to destroy a Palestinian-Israeli peace summit in New Delhi. Ruby's father, whom she has not seen since age three, is now head of India’s antiterrorist police. When the two first meet, Ravinder Gill believes his long-lost daughter has come for a reunion . . . but as time goes by, he begins to suspect that she is the terrorist he’s searching for.

DAY ONE

The woman with the Mediterranean complexion blinked as she emerged from the aircraft into the bright Sri Lankan sunlight. Though early in the day, the light was already harsh. As was the medley of thoughts clashing in her head.

Lowering her wraparound shades over large, almond-shaped eyes to cut out the glare, she paused at the top of the stairs and surveyed Colombo’s Bandaranaike Airport.

Stark brown fields with intermittent patches of green stretched away beyond the barbed-wire fence ringing the runways. Scattered along the fencing were security posts with tall, searchlight-mounted sentry towers. Grim reminders of the insurgency that had torn apart the island state.

Barring an odd airport vehicle and caterpillar-like luggage trolleys snaking around, the runway was devoid of life. An air of despondency hung all around. Not a good feeling. She gave a slight shiver, as though to shake it off.

As she descended toward the bus waiting to take passengers to the squat, yellow terminal in the distance, she watched a jetliner swoop down like a huge hawk, its blue and white Finnair logo sparkling in the sun. She heard a distant thud, followed by the smoky blistering of rubber as the jet’s wheels made contact with the tarmac. The roar of engines faded as it vanished down the runway.

It was a short walk to the bus, but she could feel sweat in her armpits. Arriving from the London chill, she was annoyed by the heat, which caused her to hurry into the air-conditioned comfort of the bus. It did not take long for the bus to fill up. Soon they were on their way. Almost everyone was switching on mobiles, several already in animated conversations. The young girl standing beside her had tuned out the world with her iPod and was swaying to some unheard beat.

Conditioned by her training, the woman did yet another rapid scan with practiced eyes. She had done this many times during the flight, but compelled by habit, did it again. Her danger antennae remained quiet. Nothing out of sync. Yet.

Those who did not know her would have assumed she was just another thirty-something masking her femininity; though the baggy, almost masculine clothing did little to conceal her breasts and voluptuous figure. Those who knew her would have noted she was in battle gear.

The baggy black jeans and equally loose, full-sleeved, blue cotton shirt were not just to keep her cool. They would also let her swing into action should the need arise. She never wore skirts or dresses on a job; neither were practical, nor were they a good idea in the man’s world she had occupied most of her working life. Also, skirts and dresses were not designed to carry the armory of an MI6 agent, which comprised a mobile, a BlackBerry, a weapon, spare magazines, and, very often, a secure digital radio. Nor could they conceal her backup, the .22 pistol in her ankle holster.

Today, of course, she was weaponless. Not good. She felt naked without them; the feeling intensified by her hyped-up state. Also missing was the protective, standard-issue Kevlar vest. Black, patent leather, rubber-soled, lace-up shoes completed her attire. The one-inch heels and rubber soles ensured she could move swiftly and soundlessly. Her black shoulder-length hair was neatly pinned back; ensuring no errant strands in her eyes. She wore virtually no makeup. On a job, she always dressed down.

As the bus swayed to a halt outside the terminal, she jumped out and headed for the immigration counters. She carried herself with the ease of a professional soldier. And she knew she looked good. Male heads turning as she passed confirmed that.

While waiting in line at the immigration counter, she ran through her operational checklist. She could not afford any mistakes. Time was short and there was a great deal to be done.

Nothing in her demeanor gave any inkling of the turmoil in her head. No one observing her could have imagined the immensity of the mission she was on. Not that she was dismayed by the obstacles that lay between her and her targets. Far from it. She wished she’d been able to run a detailed background check on her targets and her adversaries before leaving London, but there had been no time. Despite that, she felt ready and committed. She would pay any price to ensure she succeeded.

“Never forget your purpose in life.” Her mother, Rehana’s, words echoed in her head. “Never forget the blood your family has shed. Never forget what we have suffered … are continuing to suffer. No matter what, you must not let our sacrifice go to waste.”

For a moment, the memory of her mother made her falter. The sight of her shattered, decimated body ripped at the woman’s heart. But it was a fleeting lapse.

All these years, she had prayed for the day when she would finally raise her hand and strike down those who had inflicted so much misery on her people. And now the day of reckoning was almost at hand. Ten days more, and she would demolish the Israeli–Palestinian Peace Summit.

Ruby Gill strode forward. Eagerly. Completely focused. Nothing would stop her. She knew.

* * *

Ravinder Singh Gill, the tall, lean Inspector General of Police and head of the Indian Anti-Terrorist Task Force, was en route toward his third-floor office in Delhi Police HQ. Conscious he needed the exercise, Ravinder went past the elevators and took the stairs.

Though he was well past fifty, the years had been kind to him. With his neatly tied turban, flecks of gray spotting his mustache and beard, he cut a dashing figure in black pants, sky blue shirt, and patent leather shoes. A Montblanc pen peeped out from his breast pocket. Black cuff links embossed with the family’s double-headed lion crest completed his attire. The lion had one paw raised, ready to strike. It resonated with his mood.

His day had begun with the never-ending mother–daughter discussion about marriage. These had been their sole agenda ever since their daughter, Jasmine, celebrated her twenty-second birthday. It took only minutes for them to degenerate into an acrimonious harangue. Today had been no exception. Not a great way to start the day. Ravinder was in a sour mood when he had left the breakfast table and headed here.

He sensed the day was not going to get better when he came out and saw the driver changing a tire on his Scorpio SUV.

“Sorry, sir,” the man called out when he saw Ravinder emerge. “There must have been nails on the road near the Metro construction site. Both front tires are punctured.”

“How long will it take to sort it out?” Ravinder controlled his irritation.

“About half an hour, sir.”

“Damn! I am in a rush.”

“Why don’t you use our car?” his wife, Simran, called out from the door. “I will send the Scorpio when it is fixed.”

“I guess I will,” Ravinder replied, looking at the black BMW 750Li parked in the porch. Jagjit Singh, the family driver, in his bright red turban and pristine white uniform, complete with the family crest, was polishing it. Simran loved these royal-like trappings and ensured they were displayed wherever possible. Ravinder, though, preferred to downplay his wealth and royal background, not easy when being driven around in a spanking-new Bimmer. But he got into the car and they took off.

As he entered his office, Ravinder dragged his fingers back along his temples, trying to push away a budding headache. The phone rang. Ravinder reached for it, relieved to have something intrude on his dark mood.

“Mr. Gill?” The Indian Home Minister Raj Thakur’s nasal, raspy tone was unmistakable. It felt jarring, which, Ravinder thought wryly, went well with the man’s personality. Though new to this assignment, which had befallen him a few days back, when the previous ATTF chief’s heart had suddenly given up on him, Ravinder had already had some disturbing meetings with the minister.

No! Ravinder shook his head. Raj Thakur is not an easy man to like … or an easy boss.

Though clueless about security, Raj Thakur had a know-it-all’s self-confidence, which, coupled with his belligerence and eagerness to interfere in operational matters, could be dangerous. In their brief association, Thakur had already countermanded several orders given by Ravinder, generally without bothering to inform him. Consequently, Ravinder now felt he was walking around on eggshells, always peering back over his shoulders, wondering what would hit him next.

Still not fully settled in, and with his responsibility for the security of the Israeli–Palestinian Peace Summit and the Commonwealth Games that Delhi was hosting weighing on him, Ravinder so wished he had a more reasonable boss. And he was not the only one. Even the Prime Minister was said to be especially concerned. However, with Raj Thakur’s negligible, Maharashtra-centric party holding some vital seats, the PM had had no option but to give him the Home portfolio to keep his majority in Parliament intact.

So be it, Ravinder consoled himself. As a professional cop, what choice did he have, but to go with whatever the dice threw up? With only ten days left before the peace summit and the Commonwealth Games, he had more concrete issues to deal with.

“Good morning, sir.”

“I want you to come to my office, Gill. Immediately. I now have all the updates for the peace summit.”

“Right, sir.” Ravinder, with a mountain of urgent tasks to attend to, wanted to tell him to fuck off. Alas! “I will be there—” He checked his watch; it was a good one-hour drive to South Block, where the minster’s office was. “—by eleven.”

“Do that,” Thakur commanded brusquely. “Bring Mohite with you.” The minister rang off.

Ravinder was replacing the phone when, with a cursory knock, Deputy Inspector General of Police Govind Mohite walked in. Though not tall, Mohite had a well-muscled body. He was impeccably dressed in dark khaki trousers, a matching earth-colored cotton shirt, and brown suede shoes.

“You have a long life, Govind. I was about to call you. The Home Minister wants us right away.”

“I know, sir. He called me half an hour ago.” Mohite gave a wide grin.

“But I just got off the phone with him.” The words were out before Ravinder could rein them in. He felt like kicking himself.

“Oh, you know how Thakur sahib is.…” Mohite pronounced the “sahib” with an elongated double-a sound, the way Maharashtrians tend to. “He likes to sound me out about everything. You see, we became close when he was in the Maharashtra cabinet and I was in the Mumbai Special Crimes Unit.”

Ravinder heard him ramble on about what a great chap Thakur was; something Mohite was prone to doing. He wondered if Mohite knew what the meeting was about. Ravinder contemplated asking him, but shelved the thought. It would give the wrong signal. Ravinder was aware that Mohite was gunning for his job and he needed to watch his back, considering his chumminess with the minister. There had been rumors that the two had been in cahoots in several questionable killings of members of a particular crime mob. These had raised tons of media speculation, including insinuations that they had been carried out at the behest of another mob boss in Dubai and that large sums of money had exchanged hands, but nothing was proved. Ravinder shrugged. Whatever the bond, he knew it would be nasty. Since his predecessor had checked out without a formal and detailed handover, Ravinder also knew that he needed both his primary lieutenants, of which Mohite was one, till he had settled in properly.

“You are traveling in style today,” Mohite commented when he saw the Bimmer. “Might as well come with you.” Without waiting for a reply, he told his driver to follow and hopped into the rear seat.

“Why bring your car if you’re going in mine?” Ravinder asked. “Why not save some gas and do your bit for Planet Earth?”

“Oh, just in case we need to come back separately afterward.” Mohite gave an airy wave. “Thakur sahib might ask me to stay on. He likes to consult me on many things.”

“Right.” Ravinder kept the sarcasm out of his voice. Not that it mattered; Mohite was oblivious.

Tuning out Mohite’s nonstop banter, Ravinder’s thoughts returned to the meeting. The sudden summons had caught him unawares; he felt worried.

*   *   *

Her accomplice was waiting near the baggage carousel when Ruby emerged from immigration.

Over six feet tall, the oversized Mark Leahy occupied an unfair amount of space. Also wearing jeans and a cotton shirt, he had close-cropped, sand-colored hair and leathery skin, the hallmark of a man who spent most of his time outdoors. His Irish accent was so thick, one could cut it with a knife.

They had traveled on the same flight, but unlike Ruby, he looked rested and refreshed. Not surprising, since he was unaffected by her emotional turmoil.

Good! Ruby smiled. At least one of us is cool. She sure as hell was not.

“Feeling distraught is normal when one has been subjected to severe trauma,” the agency shrink had told her when she returned to London after Rehana’s funeral. Ruby’s erratic behavior had prompted her boss to send her for therapy posthaste. “There is not much you can do about it. Just be aware that your mind may wander and try to control it. Everyone has a different way of processing grief. Apparently, this is your way.”

Damn stupid way. Ruby frowned. But she’d had to cope. And live with it. Try to live with it. Especially since she had thrown away the medication as soon as she left the man’s office. Having her mind stuck on a Prozac-shelf was not for Ruby. She now hauled herself back and concentrated on Mark.

Looking at him made her feel better. She’d thought of him the minute she decided to take on this mission, which was as soon as Uncle Yusuf had come to know about the peace summit. So much had transpired since then. She smiled as she remembered her conversation with Mark only yesterday.

“Hey! How are you?” He’d sounded so pleased.

“I am very well, thank you. How are things with you?”

“Same old, same old. There doesn’t seem to be much happening. Certainly not the right kind of stuff … stuff that interests me and pays the rent. So I am catching up on life … tending to the garden and painting the fences … y’know…” He’d laughed.

Ruby knew Mark had quit the service a few months ago and was now freelancing.

“That can get kind of boring.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Well, I may have something for you.”

“You? Naah. The government doesn’t pay enough.” She’d expected that. “Besides, haven’t you heard, I quit working for them.”

“Mark, this one is personal. Nothing to do with the agency. And the money is better than good.” Ruby knew that, for the right money, Mark was the ideal man to watch her back—ruthless, resourceful, and ready to follow orders.

“Is it, now?” He’d made a humming sound. “Want to tell me more?”

Ruby knew he was on. “Not right now. You will have to trust me.”

“I do. You know I do. Implicitly.” Mark chuckled. “As much as you trust me. How many times have we watched each other’s backs?”

“Often enough. Why else would I call you, Mark?”

“And here I was thinking you called because of my lovely smile and beautiful body!” They’d both laughed. “When and where do you want me? And how long will we be gone?”

Ruby’s spirits had lightened when he said that. “We move out tomorrow. We should be back in two weeks.”

“That’s it, eh? Short assignment.”

“Yep. Short and sweet. And lucrative.”

“That’s my type.” A laconic laugh. “Where are we headed?”

“India, eventually.” Momentarily, just the mention of India unleashed a whirlpool of raw emotions inside her; about her father … a father who abandoned me … he means nothing to me. Without realizing it, she made a dubious moue. Doesn’t he? She pushed away the thought. Not now!

“India, eh? Exotic! Sounds good to me.” He’d made that humming sound again. “Say, boss,” Mark asked, somewhat bashfully, “we flying coach or—?”

“First class, Mark. Nothing but the best for you, mon ami. Your ticket will be in your mailbox shortly. Meet me at Heathrow a couple of hours before the flight.”

She knew it was a happy Mark who’d put down the phone. He looked happy even now as they came out of the Colombo airport and headed toward the taxi stand.

* * *

Traffic in Delhi is never easy. These days, with construction taking place all over the city and the massive influx of games’ tourists, it was maddening. To make things worse, Delhi had not seen such heavy rains, not in the last forty years.

As the car labored through clogged streets, Ravinder wondered what it was that the Home Minister wanted to discuss, hoping for no more unpleasant surprises; their first meeting had been one hell of a shocker. His mind fled back to that day.

“Have you heard the good news, Gill?” Thakur had greeted them with a big smile when Mohite and he reached his office that day. “India is hosting the Israeli–Palestinian Peace Summit.”

“We are?” Ravinder was stunned. One glance at Mohite’s face and he realized the news was not news to him. Damn the man! When will he learn to play for the team? “The Israelis and Palestinians are talking? That’s a surprise, considering the recent terrorist attack on Jerusalem! When did that happen, sir?”

“That’s what triggered it off. The Americans … in fact the entire international community, has put a lot of pressure on them. Everyone is fed up with the endless bloodshed.”

“And India will have the honor of playing host,” Mohite chimed in. “Just imagine! We may help peace return to the Middle East.”

“Yes, we are going to be doing exactly that.” Thakur beamed. “Isn’t it great?”

“When is it?” Ravinder ignored their euphoria, preferring to focus on the practicalities.

“Exactly two weeks from now.” Thakur would not stop beaming. “This is our chance to showcase India.… It is going to be the most critical and game-changing event of our times.”

“Two weeks?” Ravinder was floored, but the other two were so caught up in their enthusiasm that they missed it.

“Precisely. It starts on the thirteenth of October.”

Thirteenth! The number sent a shiver up Ravinder’s spine. Too much had happened to him on that particular date … and none of it good.

“But that is exactly when the Commonwealth Games are due to start, sir. Such an event will require massive security, and we are already hard-pressed for resources.”

“Resources are never available, Mr. Gill”—Thakur waved dismissively—“we have to find them. Don’t you see what this summit will do for India’s prestige?”

“I do, sir, but don’t you—? I mean … one must account for the fact that so many terrorist groups will strive to disrupt it. Palestine is the one cause that all the jihadis use to pull in money and recruits. They will never allow this.”

“All that is fine, Gill, but we have to make it happen. Maybe things will be simpler if we can keep it secret and low-key.”

“Sir, with the recent attack on Jerusalem, the whole world has its eyes on the Middle East. There is no way we can keep such a momentous event secret.”

“Well, regardless, we have to make it happen.” Thakur’s tone was firm. “We have no choice; the decision has been made. It is now a matter of national pride.”

“The security requirements will be a huge challenge, sir. What if the summit gets attacked? The stakes are so high for the jihadis; they will definitely try to strike.”

“No, Gill. Nothing must be allowed to disrupt it,” Thakur retorted. “I want you to personally take charge of the security.”

“But I also have the Commonwealth Games at the same time, sir,” Ravinder objected.

“No, you don’t.” Thakur had then sprung the second, ugly surprise. “I have put Ashish Sharma in charge of the games.”

DIG Ashish Sharma was Mohite’s peer; they both reported to Ravinder. Now to his dismay, Thakur was directly delegating work to officers under his command. Ravinder opened his mouth to protest once more, but stopped. Pointless; the man was the Home Minister, after all. Confrontation would serve no purpose; nor would it be a career-enhancing move.

“I don’t see the problem, Gill.” Thakur continued, “The arrangements for the games are in place. Sharma just has to keep things going.”

“Then why not put Mohite in charge of the peace summit, sir? That way I will be able to run oversight on both events.”

“I thought about that, Gill. I trust Mohite totally, but I think the summit is too important for any one man. Do you have any idea of the consequences if something happens to the delegates? India’s reputation would be shot to hell … not to mention the carnage that may be unleashed in Israel. No. I want you in charge. Of course, Mohite will assist you.”

“Of course I will, sir. You know we will never allow anything to happen to the summit.” Mohite was quick to spot an opportunity, one where he would be able to take credit if things went well, yet not be responsible if there was a screwup. He turned to Ravinder. “Am I right, sir?”

Ravinder caught his grimace in time, marveling at the man’s cheek.

“True, sir,” Ravinder replied with a silent sigh. “How come we got to host the summit?”

“Because the Israelis did not agree to any venue that was acceptable to the Palestinians,” Thakur was eager to explain. “And the Palestinians refused to agree to any of the Western countries. That did not leave many options. India was a logical choice, since we are on a good wicket with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab world.”

“They met at Oslo the last time,” Ravinder mused.

“Yes, but both have a problem with it this time,” Mohite jumped in again. “Apparently both sides feel that Oslo is jinxed. That is why when the PM asked Mr. Thakur if we could host it, I advised him to accept.”

Ravinder resisted the impulse to give Mohite a solid kick. Instead, he gave a politic smile. “Wonderful. I am so glad you are going to help me secure the summit, Govind.”

“But of course, sir.” Missing the sarcasm, Mohite gave another bright smile.

“So we all agree that we must keep it a secret?” Thakur asked, failing to mention that he had already spoken about it to at least ten people in the three hours since the PM had informed him. In fact, if he had his way, he would have held a press conference and shouted it to the world. This could be his moment in the sun, and he was loath to keep it under wraps. “I figured Delhi would be ideal. With the Commonwealth Games taking place, we already have a flood of VIPs and athletes, and security is already functioning at peak level.”

“That is what I explained to Mr. Thakur, sir,” Mohite rejoindered. “It will make our task so much easier.”

Ravinder looked at both men, doubting even they believed that. On the other hand, for Thakur this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase himself on an international platform. And for Mohite, a heaven-sent chance to latch on to the minister’s coattails and try to grab the limelight.

Got to watch my back, Ravinder reminded himself again. Given half a chance, Mohite would deliver him to the wolves.

“I know I can rely on you, Govind.” Thakur gave Mohite a cordial smile, then realizing that Ravinder was also present, added, “and you of course, Gill.” He wagged a finger in the air. “Now, remember, we simply cannot fail. If anything bad happens, it would be a shame for India and it would also put an end to all hopes of peace in the Middle East.”

Ravinder was in a somber mood as he listened to the two prattle on. Obviously, neither had given any thought to the practicalities of securing such an event. The whole thing was fraught with danger.

Ravinder’s memory spool ran out as their car halted in the South Block parking lot. He led the way toward the minister’s office, wondering about today, what new shocks awaited him.

* * *

Watching Mark move into action, Ruby smiled again. The efficiency with which he organized a car and driver made her feel good.

She beheld a sturdy silver, almost-new Nissan van, with a solid air conditioner. The driver, whose name she couldn’t get, spoke more Sinhalese than English, but seemed pleasant and presentable. They threw their bags into the rear. Both were traveling light. Moments later, they were headed north.

Ruby glanced at her watch. It was ticking fast. Reminding her that time was short. A pulse of urgency raced through her.

For the nth time, she wished she had been given the heads-up about this summit sooner. And again she cursed Pasha, the Lashkar-e-Taiba commander who had told her about this summit. And also e-mailed her the gory video of Yusuf, her dead uncle.

Its images had become a nightmare, returning every night. By now she’d become scared of switching off the lights and laying her head on the pillow.

The murderous bastards had even chopped his hands off.

Pinpricks of wetness pushed at her eyes. She kept them at bay, knowing she could not allow them to be seen by Mark. In their world, tears were weakness … and weakness was death.

Shaking off the gory images of Yusuf’s dismembered body, Ruby mentally urged the driver to go faster. She needed to be in motion. Motion was important. It kept the nightmares away.

They hit the first security checkpoint on the outskirts of Colombo. Fortunately, only a few cars were ahead. It took only seven minutes to get past it. A second one, a few miles out of town, took a tad longer.

Then the road stretched out before them. Long. Narrow. Lonely.

* * *

Ravinder noted that Thakur seemed excited when they entered his office.

Large and well appointed, it was tastefully decorated, in contrast with Thakur’s abrasive personality. Lemon-colored walls set off the Persian carpet in the center. To one side was a burnished teak table with a high back, deep-brown executive chair on one side and four matching leather guest chairs on the other. In the far corner, a trio of single-seater sofas was placed around a smoked-glass center table that held several coffee table books. Large paintings rode high on the walls on either side of the table. He could hear the soft hiss of air-conditioning. The aroma of room freshener reached out to Ravinder.

Lavender. One of his favorites.

“Ah, there you are, Gill.” In his mid-fifties, Thakur wore the trademark white kurta pajamas that found favor with most Indian politicians. A Nehruvian cream cotton jacket completed his attire. Thakur did not bother to get up. “Come, come. How are you two?” Without waiting for an answer, he launched off. “How are the preparations for the summit and games coming along?”

“They are coming along just fine, sir,” Mohite butted in before Ravinder could reply. “We have taken over the top two floors of Ashoka Hotel, and our teams have started installing top-notch equipment to secure the summit. We have also started putting checkpoints and roadblocks around the hotel.”

“That’s good.” Thakur rewarded him with a paternal smile.

“We have also broken three terror cells and have information about two more sent in from Pak-Occupied Kashmir to attack the games. We hope to catch them before they get anywhere near Delhi.”

“Hope to?” Thakur raised an eyebrow. “No hopes, Govind—just get them.”

“We will, sir.” Mohite again.

“Amazing.” Thakur tapped his table. “These damn terrorists never give up, do they?”

“No, sir, they don’t,” Ravinder replied. “The ISI has given them carte blanche, sir. They will do everything possible to hurt us.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Thakur’s smile slipped. The full implications of the threat now dawned on him.

“But don’t worry about it, sir. We will not allow anything to happen,” Mohite jumped in, ever eager to keep the boss happy.

“Excellent.” Thakur’s smile returned. “I know I can rely on you, Govind.”

Ravinder held his peace, not wanting to rain on their parade and point out that it was impossible to stop every terror strike. Somewhere, somehow, someone would always manage to break through any security cordon … the law of averages made that a certainty.

“Here.” Thakur pulled out two slim brown files and slid them across the table. “A list of the thirteen summit delegates, with their complete details.”

Damn! Thirteen again! Ravinder frowned; his unlucky number seemed inextricably linked to this ruddy summit. I just hope it is not—

The minister’s voice intruded. “Each delegate is accompanied by two personal security officers. Considering the special circumstances, we are permitting the PSOs to carry weapons.”

“Foreigners running around with guns in our capital?” Mohite looked up, surprised.

“Yes, Govind. And … oh, that reminds me—to assist us, the Americans and the British both have sent across an agent each.”

“Why? What do we need them for?” Mohite half rose, his agitation palpable. “We are more than capable of handling our own turf.”

“Calm down, Govind.” Ravinder waved him down; although having foreign agents mucking around was the last thing he wanted to worry about. “We will need all the help we can get.”

“Yes, but…”

“Orders from on high, Mohite.” Thakur glared, upset at being challenged by his crony. “They will be coming to your office later today, Gill. The Israelis are also sending an agent to brief us about the threats they anticipate. He should be here in a day or so.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Ravinder reassured him. “We will ensure things go smoothly. Anyone … and anything that helps us get the job done properly is more than welcome.”

“Good attitude, Gill. Now for the most important thing: The PM will be coming on the first day of the summit. I got the call this morning; the PMO wants the security plan immediately.”

“Today?”

“Why? Any problems with that?”

“None at all, sir.” Ravinder kept his chin up, knowing the rest of his day was going down the shitter; PM’s own security was paranoid and would question everything till the cows came home. Oh well! Maybe that will keep Mohite busy and get him up to speed.

“Good, then send those plans to me as soon as possible, and I’ll forward them to PMO.”

Minutes later, they left and headed back to Police HQ.

“Let us use this time to firm up the details we have to send to PMO,” Mohite muttered as he hopped into Gill’s car again. “I will ask my car to lead. Too much bloody traffic. The siren will clear the way for us.” Poking his head out, he yelled instructions to his driver.

They headed out with Mohite’s staff car leading; its flashing red light and madly whooping siren carving a corridor through the traffic. Ravinder detested the siren and would have liked to minimize the time he spent with Mohite, but recognized that now he had made useful suggestions.

“Did you notice this, sir?” Mohite tapped the file in his hands a few minutes later.

“What about it?”

“Look at the delegates list; the Israelis are sending Ziv Gellner, Yossi Gerstmann, and Shahar Goldstein. From the Palestinian side, we have Hisham Gheisari from Hamas; Mullah Ghassan Ahmed Hussein, the head imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque; and Ghazi Baraguti from Fatah.”

“Interesting,” Ravinder commented as he ran through their profiles.

Thirteen delegates! Again that bloody unlucky number. But he shrugged off the foreboding that snaked through him and nudged his mind back to the profiles.

Ziv Gellner, a former aide of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier, was now a staunch Kadima man and one of the chief proponents for a peaceful solution. Originally a hardliner, he’d lost his wife to cancer and later his firstborn son, David, in an Arab attack on the Yitzhar settlement. Mourning his son, he’d adopted Ean, a boy who survived the raid but lost both his parents during it.

When Rabin was gunned down, Ziv’s feelings had converted him into a staunch pacifist. Ziv had been right there, a dozen feet from Rabin. Right in front of his eyes he had seen all hopes for peace disappear, blown away by an assasin’s bullets. All the euphoria and hope that the Oslo talks had generated evaporated.

“Damn! Did you read this?” Ravinder pointed at Gellner’s profile. “He also lost his adopted son, Ean, in the recent terror attack on Jerusalem?”

“Really?” Mohite perused the profile. “Hmm … I wonder how he will handle this summit.” Both men pondered that. “Strange! Another coincidence,” Mohite pointed out a moment later. “Like Gellner, Yossi Gerstmann also lost his son and wife during the same Arab raid on Yitzhar.”

Ravinder found Gerstmann’s résumé fascinating. A hotshot intelligence professional, he’d been earmarked to head up the Mossad one day. But a counterterrorist operation led by him went wrong, resulting in a bloodbath; putting paid to a promising career. Now a political advisor, Gerstmann was a staunch right-winger who strongly believed that Israel should not part with an inch of land. He was obviously a logical choice for the hardliners and a counterbalancing foil for the pacifist Gellner.

The third Israeli, Shahar Goldstein, often known as the Prince, the son of a former Israeli premier, was a respected Likud man. Due to his legacy, Goldstein carried weight in most sections of Israeli society and could be expected to maintain a balance between the opposing viewpoints of Gellner and Gerstmann. His presence would ensure that whatever solution was recommended might well be acceptable to the Israeli public, which still held his late father in awe.

Of the Palestinian delegates, Hisham Gheisari, a Hamas man based in Gaza, had done a lot of community-development work and made life easier for the Palestinians. He was reputed to be above corruption, and a dozen schools and hospitals in Gaza owed their existence to him. It was men like him who had helped put an end to the corrupt Fatah regime. Though a staunch Hamas man, Gheisari was also a known dove.

Mullah Ghassan Ahmed Hussein, the Head Mufti of Jerusalem, respected in all circles Islamic, Jewish, and Christian, would also be able to play a pivotal role with the Palestinians, especially in light of the recent terror attacks on Jerusalem. In a way, he was Shahar Goldstein’s equivalent, whose presence might make a solution palatable to his people.

However, the third Palestinian, Ghazi Baraguti, a Fatah man until now languishing in an Israeli jail, was a surprise. For several months, there had been debate in Israel about setting him free as a goodwill gesture. But it had ended abruptly when Fatah terrorists made the mistake of capturing some Israeli soldiers and demanding his release. All talks of release had died away.

“Do you see the point I was making?” Mohite asked again. “From Egypt we have Atef Aboul Gheit, a retired diplomat. Jordan is sending Ghafar al-Issa, an advisor to their ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ghada al-Utri, another senior diplomat, is representing Syria, and from Saudi Arabia we have his Royal Highness Prince Ghanim Abdul Rahman al-Saud.”

“And from America we have Senator George Polk,” Ravinder added, flipping the page.

“Isn’t he known as a loner and prone to marching to his own drumbeat?”

“The very man,” Ravinder replied, double-checking the senator’s profile. “No one can be sure what his stance is, though odds are that he’d be biased against the Israelis.”

“Surprising. Very surprising.” Mohite made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Right. And from Britain it’s MP Sir Geoffrey Tang, and lastly we have the Norwegian, Sigurd Gaarder.”

“Like Polk, Tang too is a wild card, though he’s more likely to be sitting in the middle. As for Gaarder … he was one of the original Oslo negotiators and could bring in invaluable expertise.”

“Well, yes, but did you notice this?” Mohite grinned. “Each of the delegates has a name starting with G … either the first name or the family name.” He looked up. “Even both of us.” The grin broadened. “We should code name this the G-string Summit.”

Ravinder could not help smiling. He had to admit; this was a good one … even for Mohite … especially from Mohite.

“Nice, Govind! Now, let’s work on keeping that damn G-string intact. We’ve got a lot to protect and not much to do it with. Every damn terror group in the world must be panting to take a shot at us.”

“True.” Mohite’s face turned grave. “Like you said, bringing peace to the Promised Land will take away a major raison d’être for the jihad.” He may be an ass-licking busybody, Ravinder thought, but he was no fool.

The two-car mini-convoy slowed as they turned onto the road leading to the MSO Building, which housed Delhi Police HQ. The traffic was awful, and despite the siren, they were barely crawling.

That was when Ravinder saw the man. Medium height. Clean-shaven. Mid-twenties. Perhaps it was the purposeful manner of his approaching Mohite’s car that caught Ravinder’s attention. Or perhaps … Yes, that’s it, why is he wearing such a bulky overcoat? It’s not that cold.

An alarm clamored in Ravinder’s head. Tersely ordering his driver to stop, he pulled out his 9mm Browning. Leaping out, Ravinder headed straight for the man. Mohite and the driver were gazing at him, perplexed.

The man was now fifteen feet away. Perhaps his instincts too were working overtime or he had spotted the blur of movement. He swiveled and saw Ravinder rushing toward him. For a nanosecond, he froze, then threw open his overcoat and began to reach inside.

Ravinder saw the coat fly open; saw the bomb strapped around the man’s waist. Instantly his right hand rose up, but mindful of the crowd, he took aim and fired. Just once. It was enough.

The man came to an abrupt halt, as though he’d run into a brick wall. For a second he was upright, and then flung backward, his head a mass of blood.

Ravinder had gone for the headshot. He could not have let the man detonate the bomb; the casualties on the crowded road would have been horrendous.

It was over as swiftly as it had begun.

It took but an hour to sort out.

“He was Mir Kasab, from the Jaish-e-Mohammed. A known terrorist … we have a thick file on him. Came in from POK last week,” Mohite reported to Ravinder. “We found a map of this area in his pocket and the numbers of three cars: yours, Ashish’s, and mine. Apparently, he’d been tasked to take out senior ATTF cops.”

“Looks like the terrorists want us out of the picture at this juncture.”

“I guess so.” Mohite’s tone was grim; he was still sweating. Ravinder could see that he had been badly shaken. He himself wasn’t feeling so bright either.

“Don’t think too much about it, Govind. It could well have been my car. Or Ashish’s … He would have gone for whoever he reached first.” There was a silence. A shitty feeling. “The luck of the draw, my friend.… Who knows when one’s time is up.” Ravinder had to lift the mood, Mohite’s and his own. “Look at the bright side; we got the bugger before he got us.”

But the words had little effect. On either of them. Both knew that the next time the tides might well favor the other side.

“There is more, sir. He was not alone,” Mohite almost stammered. “He was part of a cell of three men.”

“Who are the other two? Find any clues on him?”

“Yes, most probably Javed Khan—we already have a file on him—and an unknown called Aslam. They came from POK together. Most likely the other two are out there”—Mohite stared out the window—“somewhere in Delhi.”

“We have to find them.” Ravinder controlled a tremor.

“I have already issued an APB and also alerted the int agencies.”

“We’d better find them … before they find us.” Ravinder thought for a moment. “Have the guards doubled. At the office and all three residences.”

Mohite ran to the phone.

Ravinder knew there was nothing more they could do. Not right now. “Now let’s focus.” He knew that work was the best distraction. “We have a summit to secure, Govind. The PM’s office is waiting for our security plans.”

* * *

Had it not been for their car’s air-conditioning, the seven-hour drive to Vavuniya would have been miserable. The dust from the potholed road added to their misery. Though tougher, Mark was not handling the heat and dust well. He took every opportunity to sleep it off. Ten minutes into the drive, and he was sprawled against the car door, tucked away in dreamland, snoring lightly. Every so often, Ruby saw him smile; obviously having pleasant dreams.

Oh well … at least someone is. A mirthless smile creased her face. He was looking good, if a trifle uncomfortable with his head knocking against the window every time they hit a bump. Pity he is gay! All the good ones … either gay or married. Ruby sighed; she could do with some comforting. It had been a while since she had enjoyed being held … not since Chance had gone. Wondering where he was right now, Ruby felt a tug. She missed him.

For a moment she dwelled on the contrast between Chance and Mark; it was huge. Physically they had a lot in common; both tall, well built, and fair, with similar close-cropped hair. But that’s where it ended. Chance was so much more sensitive and caring … and his sense of humor … Ruby smiled. Whereas Mark was not cerebral, liked to plunge into action without much thought. Well, that is what I need right now … someone who will simply follow orders.

Ruby couldn’t sleep; she felt hyped up, as though pumped with pure oxygen. She sat on the edge of her seat, watching the countryside fleeing by.

Barring small, occasional green patches of cultivation, she saw only bleakness. The color brown predominated. Like the narrow potholed road, the bleakness got worse the farther north they moved from Colombo. So did the presence of soldiers and small army camps surrounded with barbed wire, grim reminders of the recently ended insurgency.

The driver stepped on the gas now, going as fast as the road would allow. Enjoying the speed. Ruby was about to try to catch some shut-eye when they hit another checkpoint. A long line of vehicles waited to cross it. The soldiers were in no hurry; they searched each vehicle thoroughly, with the trucks, of which there were several, taking a lot of time.

Sleep forgotten, Ruby sat back, exasperated, watching the vehicles inch forward. Her mind wandered away, to Palestine, to another such checkpoint.

“That day too the line had been long.” Rehana’s oft-told story echoed in her memory. Her voice, clear as a bell; as though it were she, and not Mark, sitting beside Ruby in the car.

* * *

The Israel Defense Forces checkpoint at Huwwara, one of the main “Inner Checkpoints” of the West Bank, lay deep within Palestinian territory, just south of Nablus, at the junction of Routes 57 and 557, between the settlements of Bracha and Itamar, standing between Nablus and the satellite communities that depend on it.

“About six thousand people pass through Huwwara every day,” Rehana narrated, “some to work, go to hospital, visit relatives, or to do their shopping.”

Like all such checkpoints, passing through Huwwara involved a meticulous process. It was not uncommon to take up to two hours to get through. And the rules were never predictable, adding further to the confusion and delay.

Men line up in a closed waiting area, while women and children go through a separate pathway. The area for men was an open shed with a corrugated roof. Waist-high walls demarcate the area into aisles. The roof trapped the sweltering heat.

“Wuakef!” (Stop!) “Jubil aweah!” (Show me your identification papers!)

One by one, the men trudged up to the barred window and handed over their papers. They lifted their shirts and rolled up trouser legs to confirm no weapons or bombs. The women and children were also frisked. And arrays of scanners were also at work.

The procedure for cars was more tedious, with all passengers getting out and standing clear while a search was carried out using undercarriage mirrors, detectors, and sniffer dogs.

Bilal, Rehana’s brother, thumped the steering wheel, his frustration evident. Half an hour had passed, and only two cars had been cleared—with three more still ahead of them. Bilal, the eldest and usually the calmest of the three siblings, was getting jumpy; perhaps his diabetes was acting up. In their hurry to rush their mother, Salima, to hospital he had not eaten. Eventually, driven by his anxiety, he got out and went to speak to the IDF soldiers.

“You! Wuakef! Stop right there!” The Galil AR multipurpose rifle in the hands of the soldier yelling came up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Soldier, my mother is ill,” Bilal replied.

“I don’t fucking care.” The beardless twenty-year-old yelled, “Get back to your car and wait your turn. Now!” His rifle pointed straight at Bilal, rock-steady, confirming his willingness to use it. “Don’t come any closer.” He pointed at the security line painted on the road, meant to keep the soldiers safe from suicide bombers.

The neatly painted BORN TO KILL shining whitely across the front of his helmet and his badly accented Arabic added to the menace.

Cursing under his breath, Bilal returned. Another fifteen minutes slithered by; only one more car got cleared. Then another bout of coughing shook Salima. More blood sprayed out; by now the sheet covering her was splattered with red dots.

“Mother had been terribly ill when she woke up that morning and had started coughing blood. She was so bad that your uncles Bilal and Yusuf immediately decided to rush her to hospital. I too went with them.” Rehana began to cry as she told the story to Ruby. “By now, mother was barely conscious. The fever had skyrocketed. I could feel her body burning.”

Sitting in the front passenger seat, the more hotheaded Yusuf looked explosive, but also on the verge of tears.

Bilal could not take it anymore. His breath was short, and his hands had begun to shake as the level of glucose in his body plummeted and hypoglycemia began to take hold. That, coupled with his mother’s increasing distress, shattered his control. He jumped out of the car again.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” BORN TO KILL screamed. “Get back inside your car.”

“Come on, soldier,” Bilal yelled back. “Look! She is losing so much blood. Let us through.”

“Yeah right!” The anger in BORN TO KILL’s voice matched his raised weapon. “Get back to your car and wait for your turn.”

“Please, soldier!” Bilal was begging.

It had no effect on BORN TO KILL. “Back in line.”

“She seems to be really sick.” A younger soldier standing beside BORN TO KILL whispered. He had peered inside the car while the heated exchange was taking place. “Why don’t we let them through first?”

“You shut your fucking mouth, wimp.” BORN TO KILL hissed, “You don’t know these bastards. That is exactly what a pregnant woman said to my father. They were about to let her through when she blew herself up … taking my father and four others with her.”

The recruit, Ean Gellner, subsided. This was only his fifth week in uniform and his first day on checkpoint duty.

The other soldiers snickered.

Their words meant nothing to Bilal, since he did not understand Hebrew, but those snickers jump-started him. Hot anger enveloped him. Shaking an angry fist, he leaped forward.

“Stay back!” BORN TO KILL’s strident yell fell on deaf ears. “Stand back, you moron!” Another yell went unheeded. “Do not cross the line!”

Tension suddenly escalated.

To Yusuf and Rehana, watching from the car, everything speeded up and slowed down; too fast for them to do anything yet slow enough to see every nuance.

As Bilal crossed the line, the rifle in BORN TO KILL’s hands emitted a sharp flat report. Then, a second later, another shot exploded out.

The gunshots echoed bleakly in the silence. Jews and Arabs alike, not one could believe shots had been fired. The disbelief was shattered by Bilal’s howl of pain. The first bullet gutted him. He was falling when the second hit him. He swayed, and then slumped to the ground. A shocked Yusuf jumped out and rushed to his brother’s side.

Yusuf’s move broke the frozen tableau; people scattered frantically, racing to get out of the line of fire.

BORN TO KILL stood, still as a statue, with his rifle pointed at Bilal, a confused expression frozen on his face. Like the others, even he was shocked.

Ean Gellner, the recruit, looked as though he was about to burst into tears.

Life paused, breathless.

“What the hell have you done?” a soldier on BORN TO KILL’s right yelled, dismay plastered on his face.

“What could I do? Didn’t you see he was rushing me?” There was a sick smile on his face.

At that moment Yusuf, kneeling beside his dying brother, looked up. He saw BORN TO KILL’s smile. He did not see the fear that went with it. To him it looked as though the murderous bastard were smirking. An animal-like howl of rage burst out. Yusuf leaped up and ran toward BORN TO KILL, needing to wipe that ghastly smile off his face. From the rear of the car, Rehana saw Yusuf lunge forward. She screamed, a long futile scream; Yusuf had already broken past the line.

BORN TO KILL saw him. His finger was still on the trigger. The finger tightened as his mind emitted a silent scream of alarm. In an instant, almost half the thirty-five-round magazine had emptied itself.

Two of the bullets slammed into Yusuf’s right shoulder, spinning him around and dropping him. One of the other bullets shattered the windscreen of their car and found his mother’s jaw. It bored into Salima’s face, replacing the already quivering, bloodstained lips with a red, gaping hole. Three bullets found two more victims in the fleeing crowd. The others slammed harmlessly in the cars and the milling dust.

“There was so much blood … all around me.… I can feel it … even now.…” Remembering those moments, Rehana shuddered. Her fingers were making an involuntary rubbing motion, as though trying to wipe the blood clean. “No outsider can ever understand why our youngsters are so ready to seek martyrdom. Ruby, they don’t understand that we have no choice. We either die in a blaze of glory or slowly … inch by inch … one day at a time … but we die … and continue to die…” Her voice trailed away. “And still nothing changes.” Rehana’s cheeks were wet with tears, her voice barely audible. “Nothing changes … nothing … Ruby, we have to make it change.… We have to do something.…”

* * *

Harsh popping sounds shattered Ruby’s bloody march down memory lane. Her head hit the window with a crack, jolting her awake. The heavy tires of the Nissan van ground over loose gravel. Pebbles flew out with sharp, flat reports as the driver brought the vehicle to a halt. Except for puffs of dust swirling around, everything was still and silent.

Ruby looked around befuddled, her mind still trapped in her mother’s violent memories. It took a moment for the red and yellow signboard across the building to register.

DIYA DAHARA RESTAURANT.

Its paint had seen better days.

“You must try the food here.” The driver had twisted to face them. “This place is famous.”

“Why don’t you help us with the menu?” Mark took the reluctant Sri Lankan by his arm and led him to a table below a fan.

“And tell them to go easy on the spices,” Ruby added.

He was plainly uncomfortable, but he ordered a copious meal.

The service was efficient, but not surprising, since there were just a handful of customers. They had just cooled off with a chilled glass of King Coconut when the waiter carted in an array of steaming dishes.

“You have ordered food for the whole restaurant?” Ruby smiled as dish after dish arrived, soon covering the entire table.

“I did not want you to go hungry.” The driver smiled, hungrily eyeing the food; making it clear that he certainly wouldn’t. For him, this had to be a great luxury.

The aroma of yellow rice flavored with spices wafted out as the white-liveried waiter removed the lid from the first platter. Next he displayed fried chicken, crab curry in coconut gravy, deviled cuttlefish, white cashew curry, and coconut sambol. Their driver must have briefed the waiter to go easy on the spices, since Ruby was able to relish every dish, without breaking into hiccups. The wattalappan dessert she thought was to die for.

Mark, though he cast several covetous glances at the bottles of Three Coins beer chilling in the cooler near the cash counter, made no move to order one. He knew Ruby seriously enforced the no-drinking-on-the job rule.

The most amazing aspect of the meal was the bill. Ruby couldn’t believe it was just a tad more than what they would have paid for a sandwich back home.

“So why are we here again?” Mark asked when the driver went off to tend to the vehicle. “I thought you said this assignment was in India.”

“It is, but we first need to meet a man and pick up some equipment.”

“Well, okay.”

“We also need to recon our extraction route. In case we need to leave India by less … umm … conventional means.”

Mark nodded, satisfied. That he understood. Physical recon of an escape route was smart. He liked that Ruby was thinking through to the end. Her recent, long silences had made him uneasy.

“Tell me about the team I asked you to put together, Mark.… Who are the three guys you picked?”

“Solid, reliable hitters … just like you wanted. Experienced blokes who don’t ask too many questions. They take orders and have no qualms in executing them.”

“Perfect.”

“Yeah. Not the fancy, brainy, officer types.” He could never resist a dig at authority.

Ruby laughed. “Any of them have criminal records?”

“Nope.”

“Perfect. Can’t have any flags coming up when they cross borders.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He waved airily, but Ruby could tell something was bothering him. Mark brought it up before she could ask. “Say, boss, any chance that they may not be coming back at all?”

Ruby shrugged. “Depends on them … how things pan out … and how they handle them.”

“Fair enough.” He cleared his throat. “I see what you mean.” Another pause. “Well, the first two are a couple of Aussies, Gary Boucher and Shaun Ontong currently operating in South Africa, and the third, Rafael Gerber, is from Germany. All three are clean and perfect for the job.”

“Did they have any questions?”

“Not the Aussies, but the German did … he is a bit anal. Wanted to know who he’d be working with, so I had to give him a brief about the Aussies. He was happy when he learned they’re operating in Africa. He’s been there several years and thinks it’s the best training ground.”

“Nothing about me, I hope?”

“Not a peep about you.” Mark smiled reassuringly. “In any case, his primary concern had been only one.”

“Which is?”

“Wie was das Geld ist?” (What is the money like?)

“Das Geld ist gut,” Ruby replied firmly. Knowing what she had told Mark to offer them, she knew the money was more than good.

“Yeah.” Mark grinned. “That’s exacty what I told him. Half payable on reaching Delhi and the rest when the job’s done. He had no further questions.”

“Hmmm … hoert sich gut an.” (That sounds good.) They both laughed. “Did you set up the communication protocol with them?”

“I did. They are packed and ready. One text message and they’ll move to Delhi.”

“Perfect.”

Twenty minutes later, they were off again. The A9 highway seemed to be getting even worse. As did the condition of the buildings and houses they passed.

* * *

Ravinder and Mohite had finished hammering out the details of the security arrangements for the peace summit and shot it off to Thakur when Gyan, Ravinder’s office runner, entered.

He’d been with Ravinder for several years. Though less than brilliant, Gyan was rock-solid and totally devoted to Ravinder. The bond between them had grown ever since Ravinder, learning about Gyan’s cancer-stricken seven-year-old son, had ensured that Gyan was always posted where the best possible medical facilities were available and had ensured that Gyan received aid from police welfare funds to care for his son.

“There is a visitor for you, sir.” Gyan’s gentle tone was a nice contrast to his massive size. A moment later a tall, well-built man with close-cropped blond hair and bright, blue gray eyes walked in.

“Mr. Gill?” Dressed in a smart gray business suit, he appeared slightly ill at ease. “I am Chance … Chance Spillman. I’m with the agency.” His British accent made it abundantly clear which agency.

“Ah! Mr. Spillman.” Stepping forward, Ravinder extended his hand. “The minister told us to expect you. How are you?”

“Very well, thank you, sir. It is a pleasure to meet you.” After withdrawing a letter, Chance held it out. “Our director asked me to convey his regards.”

Ravinder took the letter. “And how is my friend Edward?”

“He is well, sir.” Chance understood that Ravinder was referring to Sir Edward Kingsley, Director of MI6.

“Did he mention that we had been at college together in London?”

“I don’t believe he did, sir.” Chance smiled—it was an easy, pleasant smile. “Not that I meet him very often.” Another easy grin. “I am still at the lower end of the food chain.”

Ravinder felt himself warming toward the man. “Right.” Ravinder laughed. Then turning to Mohite, who had a frown plastered on his face. “This is DGP Govind Mohite, my deputy.” The two men shook hands warily. The vibes between them were not good. Hostility emanated from Mohite. Ravinder moved to smooth things out. “When did you get in, Mr. Spillman?”

“Just this morning, sir.” Then he added. “Chance is good enough for me.”

“Chance it is.” Ravinder acknowledged. “An unusual name if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Well, that was my dad for you.” Chance smiled. From the way his eyes flicked away, upward and to the right, Ravinder could tell that his mind had skipped into the past. “He always believed that everything that happened was purely a matter of chance … just that.” Pause. “I like it.”

“The thought or the name?”

“Both.” Chance smiled back.

“It is unique.” Ravinder decided that it was not polite to leave it there and added. “It is very nice too.”

Chance’s grin broadened.

A longer pause ensued. Ravinder continued before it became awkward. “I want you to know, Chance, that we really appreciate your government sending you down to help us.”

Chance picked up the cue and responded. “I would like to assure you that I will do my best to make things work in whichever way you want them to. We understand this is your turf and—”

“I am glad you understand that, Mr. Spillman.” Mohite made no effort to keep his tone polite. “India has been fighting terrorism for over thirty years, and we don’t need anyone to tell us how to do things around here.”

Ravinder groaned inwardly, but the damage was done.

Luckily, at that moment there was another knock and Gyan entered. He had an attractive, fair, auburn-haired Caucasian woman in tow, medium height, in her late twenties or early thirties, with curves in all the right places. Like Chance, she too was dressed in a gray business suit. Despite her physical attributes and chiseled facial features, everything about her screamed secret agent; only the earpiece and dark glasses were missing. Her nasal twang defined her nationality.

“I am Special Agent Jennifer Poetzcsh.” She shook hands with the three men, a strong handshake, the kind women adopt when working in a male-dominant field.

Ravinder noticed the appraising look that she gave Chance. When they shook, her gaze lingered on his wedding finger, noting the absence of a ring. It was obvious she found him attractive. Chance also seemed taken by her. Then she too presented her CIA credentials to Ravinder.

With pleasantries behind them, Ravinder got busy. “As you both know, we have just starting preparing for this summit, so may I suggest you two spend a couple of days getting a feel for Delhi while we complete the arrangements.”

“Very well, sir.” Chance nodded. “If there is anything we can do in the interim, please call us.”

“But of course, Chance, thank you.” Ravinder was beginning to like the professionalism of the young MI6 man. “Where are you two staying?”

Both named different hotels.

“Then may I suggest that both of you shift to the Ashoka, since that is the venue for the summit and you can get familiar with it. Govind will put in a word with the hotel. They will give you rooms on the seventh floor, where we all will be staying.” He noted their quizzical expressions and added. “We are sealing off the top two floors for the summit, the seventh for security and admin and the eighth for the delegates. You two will have adjacent rooms on the seventh floor.”

“Excellent, sir. I will shift tomorrow.”

“Me too.” Jennifer nodded. She shot another glance at Chance, clearly pleased to be staying closer to him.

“Lastly, may I also request you to contact your agencies and get us whatever intelligence they have … anything that may affect the summit would be much appreciated.”

“Well,” Jennifer chipped in, “we do have indications that a terror strike on Delhi may well be under way, but still no way of knowing if the target is the Commonwealth Games or the peace summit.”

Everyone absorbed that.

“Anything specific?” Ravinder asked when he realized she was not going to continue. “What is the source?”

“It’s classified,” Jennifer countered, displaying none of the subtlety he thought Americans were famous for. “Just that we have electronic intelligence to believe that mercenaries, probably from England, appear to have been hired by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. I’ll let you know as soon as we have anything more.”

Her words and how they were delivered created tension in the room. Mohite’s face displayed increased hostility. Even Chance looked uncomfortable. Ravinder masked his irritation; though he had half a mind to remind her that with Pakistan as a neighbor, terror strikes on Indian cities were something they expected almost every day.

Minutes later the meeting broke up. Not on a great note.

* * *

The A9 highway from Colombo to Vavuniya got worse and worse. Ruby saw little cultivation on either side of the road. Brown stubble predominated. Barring an odd civilian vehicle and more frequent army trucks, there was little traffic.

Lounging in the rear sear, Mark had again dozed off. Though tired, Ruby was wide awake, her mind boiling with thoughts that would not let her sleep.

The sight of soldiers and their surroundings felt strangely familiar to Ruby. Then she knew why. The bleakness was so similar to what she had recently encountered in the Congo.

Again her mind flew back … to the last time Mark and she had operated together. That day too, they had been in a similar vehicle.

* * *

Ruby folded the newspaper she’d been speed-reading and let it fall to the floor of the five-door, eight-seat Toyota Alphard. The engine was running so the air conditioner could beat back some of the stifling Congo heat. She threw a glance at the house across the street before checking her watch again. Only an hour had bled away. It felt like longer. Tired of sitting still, Ruby shifted, trying to make herself more comfortable.

“The wait is always a bitch,” Mark, sitting beside her, murmured; as usual he didn’t miss a thing.

“It is these bloody vests,” Ruby muttered, trying to wipe away the sweat that was making it stick to her skin.

“Yeah! But I’d rather be hot than not have these babies when there’s lead flying around.”

Ruby was about to reply when her Motorola, a frequency-hopping piece of work, crackled to life.

“They are coming out now.” Mission Control had a clipped and calm voice. It was very upper crust, very British.

The words unleashed a jolt of adrenaline in Ruby. Her spine straightened. Her brain craved more oxygen. Hands grabbed up her weapon.

Like Mark, she was carrying a 5.56 × 45mm NATO, thirty-round Heckler & Koch G36K. She loved its heft; a lightweight and low-maintenance weapon, it was constructed almost entirely of tough carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer. Its barrels had been exchanged to give it a carbine profile, making it more useful for close-quarters use, where long-range accuracy was not a requisite. The fight ahead was likely to be up close and personal. And bloody.

“Nitpickers?” Mission Control again, asking and alerting them simultaneously. The code word showed MC’s kinky sense of humor.

“Ready to nitpick.” Chance Spillman’s voice carried the undercurrent of a man readying for action. Despite its tautness, it ignited a storm of feelings in Ruby. Desire. Regret. Confusion. The nagging feeling of something left unfinished, unresolved.

How in hell did Chance manage to slip past the guard and get to me … to the real person behind the façade I maintain? Ruby had always worked to ensure no one ever got under her skin. She had always kept her heart secure, merely allowing the body to fulfill its needs with casual, meaningless flings. Despite that, Chance managed to touch my heart. Damn! It does not matter. He did … now I have to deal with it … the why is no longer relevant … What do I do now? I want him back in my life, but …

“He is the enemy, Ruby.” Her mother’s voice tugged at her. Rehana had been miffed when Ruby told her she was moving in with Chance. “You are forgetting your purpose. He will never understand or accept what our people have suffered.”

“But I love him, Mom.”

“More than your people? More than our cause? You are ready to throw everything away … everything that we suffered to ensure you are trained and ready when the time comes for you to act.”

Unsure, conflicted, Ruby had faltered. Love, a deep caring and wanting she had never experienced before, pulled her to Chance. Love for her mother and her cause pulled her away from him. It had torn her apart. Not allowing her to commit and yet trying to cling to him.

She knew she needed to sit down and talk with Chance. Something they had not been good at doing even when living together. So many unsaid, unfinished things still hanging between them. Chance had to be aware of them too. Yet, of late, it was he who was avoiding talking, something that had been her choice earlier.

What goes around comes around. The thought discomfited her. Ruby pushed it away. Wandering minds get people killed. Too many people had drilled that into her. She focused on the mission and checked the deployment again.

Chance was one of the five MI6 agents here, the one controlling the four snipers ranged around the house. She thought it was a clever deployment.

Ruby rewarded herself with a proud grin; she was the designated Operational Commander for this mission, and it had been her plan.

The target house was a sad-looking, dilapidated bungalow on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, known until 1997 as Zaire; the third-largest country in Africa by area and the fourth most populous. Torn apart by warfare since its inception, the vast land had made no progress, and was one of the poorest countries in the world. Estimates were that even today about 1,250 people died daily due to war and related causes, like hunger and malnutrition.

In better times, the bungalow, with its red-tiled roof, would have housed some high-ranking Belgian official. However, most of the tiles had fallen or broken, leaving ugly gaps, like missing teeth. Now it was occupied by a handful of Lord’s Resistance Army terrorists … kidnappers, actually.

Ruby knew the LRA, despite its grand-sounding name, was a small group of about one hundred men, women, and adolescents, who usually operated in Congo’s northeastern province of Orientale. The group had come to the attention of MI6 because it had managed to lay hands on the British ambassador and his wife, and were now holding the couple hostage for a large ransom and for freedom for their thuggish colleagues languishing in Congo jails. The kidnap had been pure luck (for the LRA) and sublime stupidity (by the ambassador, who had disregarded basic security).

And now we’re in this hellhole to bail out the nerd and his wife.

Ruby’s fingers instinctively checked her weapon’s load and confirmed it was set on single-shot fire mode, since the semiauto- or auto-fire mode would not bode well for the health of the kidnap victims. Her feet began to flex inside her black, rubber-soled, lace-ups, getting ready to fly toward the target. Her fingers checked the weapon’s magazine again; the only visible sign of her insecurity.

Up ahead, the door with peeling paint opened and two men tentatively emerged. Both young; the one in front barely out of his teens. Both were toting AK-47 automatics; not surprising. Cheap and easily available, it was the weapon of choice of Terror Central. They halted on the porch, surveying the area outside.

The porch ran right around the house. Beyond it was the so-called garden, mostly overgrown grass. The garden ended in a six-foot-high wall, which like the rest of the bungalow was also in disrepair. Beyond it ran the road on which Ruby and her team were deployed. The road was bereft of traffic. In the distance, half a klick away, a handful of children were playing, and occasional shouts of laughter carried with the wind. In closed, air-conditioned cars, none of the agents or paramilitaries heard them. The two terrorists must have heard them, since the children held their attention for a moment before they shifted their attention elsewhere.

“Bloody amateurs!” Mark snickered, the G36K almost lost in his huge hands, noting that the scouts had their rifles slung on their shoulders and not carried in the half-port position, so they could swing into action instantly, should the need arise. And the need was going to arise. Soon.

Ruby nodded agreement; no place for amateurs.

The two kidnappers did not venture out to the road, something any scout worth his salt would have done. Even if they had, unlikely they would have spotted the two concealed cars, one on either side of the road. The vehicles on the other three sides of the bungalow were also safely tucked away.

It was several minutes before the two scouts were satisfied. Then the younger one went back inside; again with that same casual gait. Another minute ticked away before he emerged again. Following were two more gunmen, also barely out of their teens, but this pair held their rifles in battle positions and appeared more alert.

They will die first. She was certain that Chance would ensure that; it was the expedient thing to do.

Following this pair came a short, portly Caucasian man, standing out whitely among the blacks. He had his arm around an equally short but slightly built Caucasian woman. Judging by her halting gait and how the man supported her, she seemed to be sick. Or wounded. Ruby noted.

“That’s our man,” Ruby breathed as she recognized the ambassador. No one replied. Each was now readying for action. They knew the signal would be coming any second. Nerves drew tauter. Breathing began to even out, as precombat jitters settled down.

Eight more gunmen emerged. Gun women too. This latter lot arrayed themselves around the hostages and moved toward the yellow minibus parked outside the gate. A handful seemed alert, but none were all that careful. Sure, no one would have known where they were if it had not been for one of their lot who had turned Judas for the silver thrown at him by MI6. Of course, it had been a rather big bag. Ruby wondered which, if any, of them it was.

Will he live to enjoy the loot?

“Now!” Ruby half whispered as they stopped near the minibus, trying to second-guess Mission Control, who was located with the sniper facing the main door and would have a bird’s-eye view of the bungalow. Once they got into the vehicle, the job would become much more difficult.

“Sundown!”

She was right.

The code word cracked out of the radio. The Controller’s voice retained its British cool, stiff upper lip.

A scant second later, the sharp crackle of the team’s sniper rifles rang out. The four kidnappers closest to the hostages fell; the two extra-alert ones among them.

Nitpicking had begun.

Four down. Eight to go.

That was the last thought in Ruby’s head as she levered open the door and flew out, her weapon in her left hand—which was not her master hand, but that did not bother her, she had long ago trained herself to marksman standards with both hands, just one more of the prices she’d had to pay for being a woman in a man’s job.

She had barely exited when a battered maroon van turned the corner and began to nose its way down the potholed road.

At the same time, three women on foot came around the bend to the left; they hit the road just meters away from the terror cluster.

Damn! Ruby cursed. Collateral damage would not go down well on her record.

She was on her third stride when the first shot left her weapon. Though almost flying, her shot did not miss. Beside her, Mark’s weapon spit lead a millisecond later. Another kidnapper fell.

The team’s sniper rifles crashed out again. More terrorists fell. The odds were improving. Every inbound agent was firing as fast as they could.

The terrorists still standing had turned to face their attackers and their guns thundered too. So none of their bullets were aimed at the hostages.

Reacting smartly, the ambassador had dropped to the ground, dragging his wife down with him.

The terrorists’ lack of training was evident; they were firing blindly before they had even registered their targets.

But there was nothing amateurish about the bullets that zipped past her. However, with hyped-up nerves and the kill-or-be-killed instinct overruling everything, Ruby and her team raced in. No other options; they had to kill before they were killed.

The maroon van, seeing all hell break loose ahead, screeched to a halt and began reversing as fast as the driver could make it go. The three women huddled in a screaming cluster on the dirt. One stopped screaming as a passing bullet found her. The screams of the other two grew louder, but were now no more than a part of the background, as were the gunfire and screams of the dying.

By time Ruby fired her third shot, all twelve terrorists were down. Two, a thirty-something man and one of the younger women, were writhing on the ground, moaning. She shot both of them, putting one bullet through each head as she weaved past to the ambassador.

He was huddled in the dust, his arms wrapped around his wife. She was screaming, an ululating, keening sound that set Ruby’s teeth on edge. Controlling the urge to slap her into silence, Ruby reached down to grab him. She did not see the beardless teenager, with blood staining his chest, fallen beside the ambassador, reach for the pistol in his waistband. She became aware of him only when Mark’s weapon crackled to life behind her and he died with a sharp, short scream.

Ruby froze.

She cursed herself before throwing a grateful look at Mark. He gave a fleeting half salute as he continued checking the others for signs of life. Another must have been showing some, since Mark’s weapon spit again, the shot echoing away in the now silent surroundings.

Ruby hoisted up the ambassador; his wife followed in tow as he clutched her. They hustled toward the Toyota, which had shot forward as soon as the last shot faded away.

The two women passersby huddled down on the road had stopped screaming. Shell-shocked. The playing children had faded away. The maroon van was gone. Barring the thrumming of Toyota engines, the silence was complete. And it felt deafening.

Just eighty-seven seconds had elapsed, and twelve kidnappers had forfeited their lives.

Score one for the home team, Ruby thought triumphantly as she did a quick visual check and saw that her team was intact, so lucky to have come out unscathed; losing someone always hurt. Nor did it look good on the Operational Commander’s scorecard. That was something that Ruby, keenly aware of her double life, was always concerned about. Like Caesar’s wife, she always wanted to be above reproach.

Seconds later, the Toyota was racing away with its twin prize safely seat-belted inside. The ambassador’s wife had stopped screaming and gone into the never-never land of shock. Ruby did not care a rat’s ass about that. She only had to get them back alive. Cuckoo or sane, didn’t count.

The Toyota raced past where the children had been playing. Ruby spotted one of them staring openmouthed from around the corner of a hut; he would have stories to tell for a long time.

Or maybe not. This was Congo; he may have seen worse.

They had gone half a mile when the other five vehicles caught up. The convoy pelted down the narrow, potholed road.

“We have them.” Ruby heard the driver bark into the radio as she replaced the half-empty magazine of her weapon and began to reload. Beside her Mark was doing the same.

“Jolly good show. Right behind you,” Mission Control intoned, his Brit stoicism intact. “Extractors inbound.”

Minutes later, the vehicles pulled off the road and ground to a dust-churning halt in a flat, open field. The vehicles drew up in a wide circle; like wagons readying to meet an Apache attack. Kevlar-clad agents spilled out and took positions behind their vehicles, all facing outward. Not that they expected trouble, but security drills were what kept them alive.

The dust had yet to settle when three choppers swept in. Two of them headed straight into the secured clearing while the third, its guns ready, started circling overhead in a wide loop to ensure nothing on the ground interfered with the extraction. And, though the agents could not see them, high up in the sky, a sortie of RAF fighters ran a protective Combat Air Patrol, just in case air cover or heavier fire support was required.

The ambassador and his wife were hustled into the first chopper with Ruby’s team. She saw Chance and his sniper team jump into the next one as hers lifted off.

Clawing upward, the birds raced away.

Mission Complete!

There were smiles all around.

Ruby leaned back and let the stress drain away. Momentarily, the faces of the downed terrorists she had shot flipped into her mind. She shrugged.

The fuckers should have realized what they’d signed up for. She shrugged again. They are wrong. I am right. Well … if not right, at least on the good team. Isn’t that reason enough for me to pull the trigger? Isn’t it! The thought troubled her only briefly. Of course it is. That is all there is to it … nothing to fret about.

Closing her eyes, she shut out the clamoring roar of the rotors.

* * *

As the Nissan van halted again, Ruby startled back to the reality of Sri Lanka.

The man whom Ruby and Mark had traveled halfway across the world to meet was waiting when they pulled to a stop outside a seedy hotel in Vavuniya. He was one of the contacts passed on to her by Pasha; she had called him before leaving London.

Barely five feet, the dark-skinned Chanderan was roly-poly, and like most men Ruby had seen on the streets, he wore a blue-and-white-checked cotton lungi and a white cotton half-sleeves shirt, with its buttons undone almost to the midriff. He led them proudly to the reception desk, a tiny wooden table adorned by a large, thumb-worn guest register and a pink flower vase with plastic flowers sticking out from it. Like the table, both the flowers and the vase had seen better days.

“It is all taken care of.” He announced grandly. Though afflicted by the typical islander accent, his English was okay. “I will wait while you freshen up.”

“No worries.” Ruby was in no mood to tarry. “Come on up to the room with us.” She threw a glance at Mark, making it clear that he was to stick with her.

The first-floor room Chanderan led them to was about the size of two prison cells. It had a queen-size bed in the center, a minuscule wooden table near the window, which overlooked the noisy street outside, and had a chair pulled up against it. The bed was covered with a flowery, cotton bedspread. A stale smell hung in the air, making it obvious that the hirers of these rooms usually took them by the hour, and it had been a while since the room had seen any housekeeping services. With the three of them in it, the room felt claustrophobic. Mark threw an amused look around. No air conditioner. Just an ancient-looking fan slowly churning overhead. Ruby thanked her stars that they were staying just the one night. She waited till Mark closed the door. “Our mutual friend said you could be relied on to get us what we need.”

“He is most kind. I will try my best.” She saw nothing about this Chanderan that convinced her he had been the primary weapons supplier to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the terrorist group that had held the island captive for two decades. Of course, with the group now destroyed, Chanderan’s business had nosedived. Ruby had been given these inputs by Uncle Yusuf when he called her from Dubai. The memory of what had since happened to him overwhelmed her; the ghastly manner in which he had been killed filling her with fury. She pushed it away.

This is not the time. I must focus. That will be revenge enough. His death will not go to waste.

She saw Mark watching her as she focused again on Chanderan. Yes, he would be delighted to supply them with whatever they needed.

“This is what I need.” Ruby handed over a short list to him. He scanned it, all at once mutating from bumbling hotel manager to seasoned arms supplier. Ruby could see why he had survived.

“The rocket launcher and the rockets to go with it are not a problem.” Chanderan looked up. “The Glocks will take some time.”

“How much time?”

“Two weeks at least. Maybe even more. I will need to check. New stuff stopped coming in a while ago … ever since…” He shrugged.

Damn! “I don’t have that much time.”

“Maybe I can give you something else in that category?”

“No.” Ruby shook her head; the Glock 17 was crucial. With 17 percent of it high-tech plastic polymers, it was almost undetectable. If unassembled, it required an expert manning the detectors to ascertain its presence. And its seventeen-shot magazine capacity offered a huge advantage. She’d need that for the thirteen targets to be taken down. Not to mention the security men between her and the targets.

Chanderan was about to say something when Mark spoke. “Boss, can I have a word with you?”

Chanderan took the hint. “Why don’t I organize some refreshments for you … while you two discuss things.” He left.

“How badly do we need them Glocks?” Mark asked softly as soon as they were alone.

“We need them for sure.”

“I know a guy, way bigger and more organized than him”—Mark nodded toward the door through which Chanderan had exited “—who can get them for us in India.”

“You sure?”

“As sure as I can be. I have dealt with him.” Mark shrugged. “In any case, what have we got to lose? This guy doesn’t have them for sure. So even if the chap in India doesn’t, we go for the next best option.”

Ruby nodded. “Fair enough.”

“We can even get all the rest of the stuff in India … why cart it all the way from here?”

“No, we need him to get us out,” Ruby explained. “This guy is also our fallback escape route so this is money well spent, just in case things go badly in India.”

“Makes sense.”

When Chanderan returned, it took another twenty minutes to seal the deal. Ruby did not bother to negotiate on the price, even though she knew he was charging way too much for stuff that he’d never be able to sell for years.

“But, for that price,” Ruby said flatly, making it clear that her demand was nonnegotiable, “you will need to deliver our materials to India and also organize a boat for us.” Her guess had been right: Chanderan needed the business; he agreed without a murmur.

With everything going according to plan, Ruby should have slept well that night. But she didn’t. With sleep came the recurring dream.

Once again that faceless, formless man appeared, urging her on, pleading to her. She was feeling nauseated when she jolted awake the sixth or seventh time. Gulping down a glass of tepid water, she reached inside and drew on her inner resources, the way they’d taught her during training. However, it was a while before her calm returned, bringing with it a renewed sense of purpose.

When she finally fell asleep, it was a deep, dreamless sleep.

* * *

By time Ravinder finished checking the games’ village security and returned home, it was almost eleven. The road leading up to his house was in near darkness; the power supply had failed again.

Ravinder noted the two additional security guards, one patrolling along the boundary wall and the other backing up the gate guard. They seemed alert; Mohite had gotten this one right.

First thing tomorrow I must caution Simran and Jasmine to be extra careful till those Jaish terrorists have been captured, Ravinder reminded himself as he let himself into the almost dark house. He’d already called Simran earlier that evening and knew she wouldn’t be waiting up for him.

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Mukul Deva served as an infantry officer in the Indian Army for sixteen years, and for over a decade, was involved in active combat and counterterrorism operations in India and abroad. He is a recognized expert on terrorism, especially the menace of Islamic fundamentalism.

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