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Against All Evil: Jack and Storm: Episode Two

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When Jack and Storm left city hall they headed toward the bridge over the river and then to their assigned living area on the other side. "We'll stop at the bank on the way home and deposit this cash," Jack said as they broke into a fast run.

Five minutes later, Jack slowed his pace and said, "I don't like the look of those men standing at the bridge ramp. Something's not right."

Storm slowed to match Jack's lope. "Yeah. I noticed them, too. Five of them . . . like they're waiting for something."

"Like us, maybe?"

"Probably. Us and the two-hundred-thousand dollars."

Jack and Storm stopped in the deep shade of a huge oak. They were still a hundred yards from the bridge. Jack looked around, then said, "We've got to get to the other side, deposit this money, then get home to the pups. But that's the only bridge within twenty miles. Our other choice is to swim, but this money is too much weight, and I wouldn't want to get it wet. And the river's filthy and polluted with chemicals and waste."

"Then there's no other choice," Storm said. "Let's just go on like we normally would. If they make a move to stop us, we'll break into a fast run and out maneuver them. They probably wouldn't chase us into our part of town. Anyway, we could easily outrun them."

Jack was quiet for a moment, looked around again, then said, "All right then. If that's what we have to do, that's what we'll do."

When he said that, and in the way he said it, Storm sensed that something about him had abruptly changed. It was in the resonance of his voice. When she glanced at him, she saw it in his appearance, as well. His ears were pitched forward, his eyes were wider, his mouth was open just enough to reveal rows of flashing white teeth. His neck hackles were raised, and his tail was straight out. His body was lower to the ground than usual. "Let's get this over with," he growled in a way she'd not heard him speak before.

"Jack?" Are you okay? All of a sudden you're different."

"I'm not different, Storm. It's just another part of me that I'm feeling, one I've managed to keep under tight control. But now I'm not gonna let those goons get this money. It's our way out of this back-water cesspool of a town. I've had it with being branded a second-class citizen because some genetics company wanted to see how hybrids like us would turn out. We're nothing more than experiments let loose into human society. We just happened to have been consigned to a particularly miserable place. This reward is a chance to go somewhere we'd be welcome. To be with others like us. If we let those thugs, if that is what they are, take this chance away from us, we'd regret it the rest of our lives. So, if I'm different than I was a few minutes ago, it's more likely it's the real me surfacing. But whatever it is, I have a feeling we'll find out soon. Are you with me?"

Storm shifted her stance, felt her hackles rise, then said, "I hope they don't try to stop us. But if they do, you're right, we can't let them take the reward money. We'll have to do whatever it takes to get past them. Yes, Jack, I'm with you."

A hundred yards in front of the two wolves, Stan Grift stood at the bridge ramp with his arms hanging at his sides. He clutched a heavy oak billy club in his right hand. Four other men were lined up behind him, each armed with with clubs of some sort, each with hatred in his eyes, but fear in his guts. They'd seen pictures of wolf-human hybrids before, had heard rumors of their ferociousness when riled, and had seen photos of Jack in the local newspaper, but their guts twisted into even tighter knots as they watched Jack and Storm advancing as if they were unafraid, unconcerned about the supposedly fierce foes they faced. When the men saw how big Jack actually was, they realized he was far larger than they'd expected. And the wolf walking along side him, although somewhat smaller, had a look of fierce determination they were unable to ignore.

"Hold the line," Stan said without taking his eyes off the approaching couple. "Think about the grand we'll each get when we deliver that backpack. Follow my lead, stay where you are until I say otherwise. Remember, they're just freak dogs, that's all. Nothin' we humans can't handle. They'll do what I tell then to do."

Jack and Storm came to a halt five yards short of the ramp. Then Jack took a single step forward. "We need to cross," he said in a clear , strong voice. "Move aside and there'll be no trouble."

Grift matched Jack's advance, then said, "You can pass after you pay the toll."

Jack held the man's eyes and said, "There's no toll on this bridge. Never has been. Move aside," he repeated.

"Well, there's a toll now. That pack strapped to your back will do."

Jack took step forward. Storm moved up to his side and growled softly. As if answering her back, Jack growled more loudly, then said to Grift, "Toll or no toll, we're crossing this bridge, and we're not paying you anything. Get out of our way." His voice was more like a snarl than his usual humanized wolf intonation.

"It's not that easy, Dogboy. Have your bitch undo that pack and drop it on the ground. Then you can be on your way."

Understanding that the man was not going to let them pass without getting the pack, Jack slowly edged forward, his eyes darting back and forth between Grift and the four men lined up behind him.

Seeing the wolf approach as if to dart past him, Grift raised the club over his head as if preparing to slam it down on Jack if he came closer. That movement was all it took to spark Jack into action. He bolted forward, but quickly twisted to the left as the club flew downward past his head. But unexpectedly, Grift swiftly followed the swing of his club with a powerful kick with his steel-tipped boot to Jack's shoulder. The heavy force and intense pain caught Jack off guard, allowing Grift to land a fierce blow with his club directly onto his back. Jack staggered but managed to leap aside and avoid the next blow. But then, as Grift raised his club for another swing, Storm vaulted high over Jack and while airborne clamped her powerful jaws around Grift's wrist, instantly crushing bone and drawing blood. Grift desperately tried to shake off Storm's unyielding grip and screamed for his men to attack. While Grift was occupied with Storm's vicious assault, Jack turned to intercept the man who was rushing to where Storm was by then mauling Grift's shoulder, and with a single arching leap, sank his teeth into the man's throat and shook him like a ragdoll. When blood gurgled out of the man's mouth and open wounds, Jack flung him away and spun to meet the next attacker. This one was quicker on his feet. With a vicious kick, he deflected Jack's attempt to grasp his club-wielding arm. But before Jack recovered, Storm, having tossed aside the disabled Grift, already had the man on the ground tearing flesh from his thigh as he screamed in agonizing pain. The two remaining thugs, seeing what the two wolves did to their companions, took off running toward the town center.

With two of the assailants disabled, a third dead, and the other two run off, Jack and Storm were able to catch their breath and consider what they'd just done. Storm was visibly shaken, staring at the man moaning on the ground with his bloody leg in shreds. Then she looked at Grift clutching his mangled shoulder desperately trying to stem fountains of blood spurting in all directions. "Jack, what have we done?"

Jack nudged the one whose throat he'd ripped open. There was no response. He glanced toward the town. "Humans would call it self-defense if it was their doing. But for us, it'll be murder if how they've treated us in the past is any indication."

Storm, following Jack's gaze, said, "You're right. But it was so easy. And it felt . . . I don't know . . .  natural? What's happened to us?"

"I'm not sure. But I'd do it again if I had to. And yes, it was easy. And it felt good, like that's who I really am—wolf. But right now, we've got to get out of here. Those two men will spread the word as soon as they get into town and all hell will break loose. Between the police and gun-toting vigilantes, the manhunt will be relentless. Let's go."

Wolves have been clocked at forty-miles-per-hour, and Jack and Storm beat that by a fraction on their way to their den and the two young wolf pups awaiting their return. Storm insisted on the pups eating as much as they could, as she and Jack did themselves. Then, with nothing other than the pack full of cash on Jacks back, they left what had been their home for the past three years, the town's area designated for them and them only. They headed north into an expanse of dense woods flanking the western side of the Rocky Mountains and extending almost a hundred miles to the Canadian border. They intended to get as far away as possible from the town, the men who would soon come after them, and the country that created them and then threw them into an alien society that would want nothing more than to destroy them.

Jack felt safer when they reached the forest not far from town. Its dense canopy concealed them from surveillance drones that would have been launched by then. A bigger threat now was a robot sniffer dog that could follow their scent trail. Jack had seen them during his training and knew how effective they were. They'd have to find a body of water large enough to wash away their traces. Even if it meant getting the money wet, it would dry out eventually. They traveled at a quick pace for the rest of the day—resting only when the pups were too exhausted to continue—then into the night, closer and closer to the border. The astounding endurance of wolves for running served them well and they kept well-ahead of any pursuing trackers. Finally, in the dark of night, Storm caught the odor of lake water off to the west and they headed in that direction. Moonlight filtering through the treetops was enough to allow safe passage through the forest's dense undergrowth. Soon they found what they were looking for, a large lake that filled a long valley leading northward, toward Canada.

When they halted for a brief rest before entering the water, Jack suddenly perked up his ears and turned toward the woods they'd come out of. "Hear that sound? It could be a robot crashing through the woods."

Storm stood silent, listening." "No . . . wait . . . yes, I hear it now . . . it's far away but seems to be coming this way."

"Storm, you and the pups swim to the upper end of this lake. I'll stay here and take care of this robot. If I don't, it'll circle the lake until it picks up our trail again. I'll find you as soon as I can."

"Jack! You can't destroy that thing. Aren't they indestructible?

"I'll have to trick it by giving it a false lead. That could give us enough time to reach the border. You'd better get going."

For a few moments Jack watched his family enter the water and head toward the middle of the lake, noticing how close Storm stayed to the pups. Then he turned his attention to the sound of the robot closing in on his scent.

Against All Evil: Jack and Storm; Episode One

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Small town, Northwestern United States, 2079 AD

Jack was tired after a long day at his security guard job. He'd logged four hours of overtime because his partner Hambone ,was out for three weeks with a broken leg. Still, with two demanding youngsters, the extra pay was a godsend, so he would just bear the exhaustion and rake in the benefits. It was dusk when he finally got checked out by his supervisor and headed home, loping along Central Avenue at a brisk pace. He wanted to get home in time to give Storm, his mate of four years, relief from the little mutts, play rough and tumble with them, and maybe take them for a romp in the park before dinner and sleep time if possible.

He hadn't gone more than a few blocks when he heard a siren approaching from behind, then noticed a surge of red and yellow flame low in the sky and caught the unmistakable odor of smoke. It was up ahead in the next block. He was trained in rescue work, so without hesitation he broke into a fast run and reached the conflagration a few moments later. A group of panicked and distraught people was gathered on the sidewalk across the street from a three-decker apartment building engulfed in a blazing inferno. One of the women was screaming, "My baby! She's still in there! Please. Somebody, do something!" Her cries didn't drown out mumbling of derision directed at him by a few of the folks standing there, and he noticed unfriendly looks by others. But used to such discrimination, and realizing how dire the situation was, Jack ignored them, dashed across the street, bounded up four cement steps, and ran through the open door.

The heat he crashed into inside the burning building was like a brick wall, but he kept going, rushing toward the sounds of a baby crying somewhere down a hall filled with smoke but not yet with flames. He held his breath and ran as fast as he could, his eyes chafing from the searing heat, trusting his hearing to lead him to the baby. He burst into the baby's room where the temperature was less intense, and which was relatively smoke-free. He snatched up the infant, who was thankfully wrapped tightly in a blanket, careful not to injure her with his powerful jaws. Glancing around the room, he saw a  window open just wide enough for him to fit through. When he jumped out, he landed on top of a garbage bin, managed to keep his balance, dropped to the ground, and ran with the child to where its mother waited desperately with open arms and tears flowing down her cheeks.

The baby was unhurt, and Jack was joyfully proclaimed to be a hero. He was embraced by almost everyone there and graciously accepted their praise and thanks with calm and equanimity. He answered questions by the Fire Department Chief and posed for photos to document his heroic rescue. But as the interrogations came to a close, and he prepared to leave, a gaggle of TV news reporters and cameras showed up. He reluctantly gave in to their insistent demands for interviews, although what he really wanted was to get home to Storm and their two rambunctious but endearing youngsters.

Back at work the next morning, Jack encountered a blitz of attention again. Much of it was praise of his bravery, but some, primarily from those who already resented him because he was different, ranged from rude indifference to outright threats. In fact, because of possible physical harm to Jack from a few of his more aggressively prejudiced his coworkers, his supervisor took him off his regular shift and assigned him to an abandoned government facility where he was the only guard on duty. But even with Jack posted to a remote location, the town's mayor managed to track him down and summon him to city hall the following day for official recognition and congratulations. With all this attention, Jack was becoming worried that it might interfere with his career and just wanted to get on with his quiet life as it was before he saved the baby. But between an unrelenting tsunami of social media, TV and extensive newspaper coverage, and the heavily publicized event at the mayor's office, that naïve desire turned out to be impossible. As a result, his life was changed in a way he never could have imagined.

The next day, Jack and Storm arrived at city hall a few minutes before the mayor was scheduled to meet them at the main entrance. The mayor's deputy had planned a grand entrance with the mayor personally escorting Jack and Storm into the rotunda lobby where TV cameras would be stationed for a live broadcast of the award ceremony. Most of the people involved in this event, other than Jack himself, understood the ceremony was intended to make the mayor look good in this election year as he cast aside discriminatory barriers to beings like Jack and his mate and magnanimously acknowledged Jack's heroism.

Unfortunately, the regular security guard at the entrance to city hall was in an accident on his way to work that morning and a temporary replacement had been hurriedly recruited from a neighboring town. He must have led a hermit's life because he didn't recognize who Jack was when Jack and Storm approached the check-in area. He rudely told them they'd have to use the delivery entrance around back. That's how GMAs were always treated, with no exceptions. Not wanting to cause trouble, Jack started to walk away, intending to go to the rear entrance where he and Storm would be allowed admittance.

"Jack!" Storm shouted, "where are you going? We were told to meet the mayor at the front entrance. That's what we're gonna do, no matter what this hick says." The guard took a few steps back when he saw the fierce look Storm gave him.

"Come on, Storm. It's' not worth arguing about. You know how they feel about our kind. We've gotta play by their rules to get by in their world."

But Storm, with irrepressible outrage distorting her striking facial features, pushed Jack aside, moved forward to a spot directly in front of the confused guard, and shouted, "What's wrong with you? Don't you know who he is? He's Jack Lupus, that's who. And I'm his mate, Storm Lupus. We were invited by the mayor." Her angry protest was loud enough to attract the attention of those inside the building, and before the replacement security officer could manage a response to Storm's verbal attack, the mayor's aide suddenly appeared. He nudged the guard aside and led Jack and Storm through the entryway, apologizing profusely for the embarrassing mishap and promising that the security guard would be dealt with appropriately.

"He was just doing his job, He didn't know who I was," Jack remarked as they hurried toward the entrance. But the deputy either didn't hear Jack, or if he did, ignored what he said.

Jack and a somewhat calmed Storm followed the deputy past the security checkpoint, through a short hallway, and into an ornate lobby. They were greeted by a rousing reception—a ring of chairs was filled with clapping and cheering citizens and city workers who'd been coerced to attend another of the mayor's frequent public functions. TV cameras hovered behind the circle of chairs. A podium stood on a low dais with a microphone on it. Standing at the podium with outstretched arms and a tooth-flashing smile that could dim the intensity of the sun, was the mayor himself, the honorable Silas J. King, now in his fifth term and in the middle of a bitter battle for his sixth.

His opponent, Miss Geraldine Hope, the libertarian City Council President, was running on the usual tried-and-true anti-corruption plank, but also advocated an "equality for GMAs" theme—repealing local discrimination laws against Genetically Modified Animals. Among all the minority populations King had to put up with, he despised the wolf family most of all. In his view of the world, and in agreement with most of his fervent supporters, they were no more than freaks foisted on society by Satan-possessed East Coast devil-worshiping scientists simply because they wanted to test their ability to challenge the power of the one and only true God. Freaks he had to accommodate because of federal laws that superseded laws passed by the city council of his own town. So, to placate liberals whose votes he still needed to retain the power of his office, he had to play the part—show compassion, demonstrate acceptance, and acknowledge their rights. So here he was, forced by political expediency to bestow the honor of "Hero" upon this humanized wolf bastard for simply doing what he'd been programmed and trained to do, and in so doing, cheating the city out of an award he should not be entitled to.

The mayor's hypocrisy didn't fool Storm—she had a keen ability to read human body language and emotions. She'd always been less inclined than Jack to willingly accept restriction imposed on their species by the ruling majority. It was obvious to her that they'd been relegated by the town's power-brokers to a rung even lower than other minorities. But she did understand Jack's acceptance of their situation—play along to get along. Like Jack, she also understood the futility of defying age-old prejudices by many people toward anyone outside their own group. But she didn't like it and was more prone than Jack to express her hostility, even at times to a point of insurrection. It was in this state of mind that she stood calmly next to Jack listening to the mayor recount Jack's actions the previous night, claim credit for his own tenure's success at creating community harmony, and promise further progress in his next term. Then, with a major surprise that turned their world upside down—not only was Jack awarded a key to the city and a huge wreath of red and yellow roses, but also a cash award of two-hundred thousand dollars, anonymously donated by a wealthy citizen. With that astounding announcement, and a brief thank you statement by Jack, the ceremony ended with crisp one-hundred-dollar bills and the gold-plated key being stuffed into the pack strapped to Jack's back. After Storm instructed the mayor's aide to send the flowers to the rescued baby's family, and in a state of near-disbelief at their good fortune, she and Jack made their exit from the rotunda past a line of applauding citizens.

Jack and Storm hadn't even made it half-way along the hall toward the front entrance when the mayor leaned close to his aide and whispered, "Damn! That two-hundred-grand sure would be helpful to my campaign."

When the mayor's attention was directed toward a reporter requesting a quote about the ceremony, the aide nodded at a burly man who was standing at the edge of the crowd as if awaiting instructions. The man quickly turned and followed Jack and Storm out of the building.

To be continued . . .

Late Night Helpline: Episode Six

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Balbir didn't give me a chance to say more. I followed behind him as he headed toward the alleyway. When we got to the edge of the wall and peered around the corner, we saw the SUV. It was parked alongside a dilapidated wooden dock stretching a hundred yards or so into the oil-slicked water. The driver, who we assumed was Mukesh, was climbing out of the driver's side. Chandra got out on the other side.

With Balbir crouched low and leading the way, we kept to the deep shadows cast by the banyans and crept silently toward the SUV, careful not to step on twigs or debris that could give us away. Soon we were close enough to hear what Chandra and Mukesh were saying.

Mukesh moved to the edge of the dirt lane and pointed at a couple of scruffy boats tied to a section of the dock running parallel to the embankment. “We’ll use that green one.”

Chandra joined Mukesh and looked where the big man indicated. “Whose is it?”

Mukesh turned to leave. “Don’t worry about it. C’mon, help me with the body. Let’s get this over with.” Mukesh returned to the SUV and opened the hatch. Chandra grabbed the opposite end of the rolled-up rug as Mukesh pulled it out. They dropped it to the ground and Mukesh said, “Lock the car, we’ll leave the money here. It'll be safe. When we’re back from dumping this guy, we’ll take it to Maneesha. She’s in a hurry to get it.”

Meanwhile, well-hidden but within hearing distance, Balbir asked, "Did you video that?”, “and record what he just said? That’s all the evidence we’d need.”

I fumbled with my phone, my hands shaking. “Ah . . . no. I didn’t get it. I hit the wrong button."

“You didn’t get that? Them taking the body out—and admitting they were going to get rid of it? That was the important part, Alex.”

“I’m sorry. It happened so fast I—”

“All right . . .forget about it . . . we’ll change our plan. I’ll capture them now, while they still have the body.” Balbir glanced behind us, looked at the SUV, then shifted his gaze back at the two men dragging rug-encased Khalid toward a stairway that led down to the dock. Then without further comment, he pulled the pistol from his waistband, checked to make sure it was loaded, and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

I was stunned by what Balbir said and even more so when he took out his gun. “That’s crazy! You can’t do that. There’s two of them, there’re killers, we wouldn’t stand a chance,” I whispered.

Balbir ignored my concerns and hissed, “Are you ready? Is your phone on?” then, not waiting for a response, he began crawling toward the stairway the two thugs were approaching. I followed a few feet behind as we covered the remaining twenty yards to the dock. We stayed in the shade and weaved between the trees to avoid detection. It helped that Chandra and Mukesh were focused on containing Khalid's body, which was slipping out from one end of the rug bundle as it bounced over rough ground.

Chandra stopped abruptly. “Wait! It’s coming undone.” When Mukesh looked back he saw half of the corpse sticking out of the unraveling roll. The rope that had been wrapped around one end had slipped off and lay in the dirt a few feet behind.

“Fix it!” Mukesh commanded, as he glanced around the area and checked the lane back to the main road. “Hurry.”

Balbir and I crouched low behind the last banyan tree in the row which was closest to the dock and watched Chandra struggle to reroll Khalid in the rug and secure it with the frayed rope. “It’s now or never,” Balbir mumbled, as he stood and stepped from behind the broad trunk, pointed his pistol at the men, and yelled, “Hands in the air.”

No more than a second later, I started the video, shifting the view back and forth between Balbir and the would-be captives. I caught the determination on Balbir’s face and the surprise on theirs. I got his words and the crunch of his footsteps as he strode toward the two men. I recorded Chandra squatting next to the rolled-up rug and Mukesh’s response as he watched Balbir coming toward him.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Mukesh yelled.

Balbir ignored Mukesh’s questions and stopped five feet from him. Pointing the gun at the giant and keeping his eyes focused on him, he said to me, “Get his gun. It’ll be in a holster under his left arm. Mukesh! Open your jacket with your left hand—slowly. Keep your other one raised.” Then he glanced at Chandra, who was starting to get to his feet. “Stay where you are."

Chandra stayed down and Mukesh did as commanded: his gun was where Balbir said it would be.

I trembled as I approached Mukesh, holding my phone in one hand with the video still recording and reaching up with the other to withdraw the pistol from its holster. When my hand was only a few inches from the grip, Mukesh, in a flash of lightning-like speed, grabbed me with one of his massive arms, spun me around to face Balbir and pulled me close to his chest. He grabbed at his pistol with his other hand.

Before Mukesh was able to withdraw the pistol, Balbir, instantly realizing the need to act quickly, fired a single shot that hit Mukesh in the middle of his forehead. Mukesh released me and flew backwards to the ground, dead on arrival, as the saying goes.

In the instant we were both consumed with Mukesh’s attempt to gain control of the situation, we failed to notice Chandra take out his pistol and aim at Balbir. At the same time Mukesh hit the ground, Chandra fired a shot at Balbir, hitting him in the chest. Before Chandra could get off another shot, without thinking I dropped my phone, leapt on him, and grabbed his gun hand, twisting it backwards with all my adrenalin-stoked strength. When his wrist snapped the gun landed in the dirt and I thought I had him under control. Then, as if speared by a javelin, I felt a knife-like pain in my shoulder that sent me reeling. I saw red and screamed, but when I saw Chandra drop a knife and grab at the pistol he'd dropped when I broke his wrist, I hit him in the face as hard as I could and grabbed for the gun. We caught hold of it at the same time and struggled to take possession. I hit him in the face again with my other hand, but he kept hold of the gun with his good hand, as did I too. We struggled violently, and he finally got his finger on the trigger. I kept fighting to release his grip but couldn’t make headway. The pain in my shoulder was draining my resolve. Then I heard Balbir moan. He’s not dead, I realized. Thank God! Energized with this revelation, I pushed harder against Chandra’s arm, twisting it away from me as it was angling toward my body. Then, as if in a final attempt to kill me, he fired a shot. As soon as he did, his body went limp and his tight grip on the pistol released. He was dead. His second shot had blown away the entire side of his head. Other than a loud ringing in my ears, I was unscathed.

I lay unmoving for a few seconds, breathing hard and regaining my strength. Wanting to check Balbir’s condition, I started to get up but froze when I felt a hand on my un-injured shoulder. Turning my head, I saw it was Balbir. “You’re alive! After Mukesh shot you.”

“My Kevlar vest saved me, although that close-range shot knocked the wind out of me.” Balbir glanced at the knife laying in the dirt, then at my shoulder. “That’s a nasty wound. Chandra might have struck bone. We need to get you to a doctor. Can you get up?”

I got to my feet with Balbir’s help, although my legs were wobbly and the pain from the knife wound was intense. Balbir handed me my phone, then said, “We need to get away from here. Can you make it back to my taxi?”

I took a few steps. “Yeah. But what about these guys?”

“I’ll call in an anonymous tip later.” Balbir then riffled through Mukesh’s pockets and retrieved the keys to his SUV. All right, let’s go.”

As we started toward the lane out to the street, Balbir stopped at Mukesh's SUV and opened a door to the back seat. After he rummaged around, he got out and went to the rear of the vehicle where he opened the hatch door and searched some more. A few seconds later he pulled a black leather satchel out of the tire well and said, “Here’s your mother’s money. Enough to cover your expenses, too.”

I started to object, but then had second thoughts. Why not? It is hers. And between airfare, hotel costs, and what I'll owe Balbir, expenses have added up. But I still couldn't resist being the honest good citizen. "What about the police? Won't they wonder what happened to the money?"

Balbir shook his head, as if amazed at my naivete, then handed me the satchel and started along the lane toward the main street and where his taxi was parked. "Come on, let's go," he said over his shoulder. "The cops wouldn't know about this money, unless Gobind tells them what he's heard by hacking the Mahurs' phone calls—and I can assure you he wouldn't do that." When I caught up with his fast pace, he said, "Perhaps you should make a small contribution to Gobind's laboratory—in appreciation for his time and skill. Research funding is hard to come by in these times."

"Yes, of course. And I want to pay you for your time and expenses, too."

He nodded and glanced at me. "My regular rate for a full day is ten thousand rupees—about $150. Four days makes it $600—40,000 Rupees."

"No problem," I said, as we approached the taxi.

"Okay," was all Balbir said as he unlocked the car and we got in.

The first thing Balbir did when we were back in traffic heading away from the dock area was take a throw-away phone from the glove compartment and punch in a number for the Mumbai police department. After a couple of transfers, he connected with the right person and said, "There are two bodies at the Kolabindu dock. They've been shot. There's another one wrapped in a rug. A late-model SUV is parked nearby. Oh yeah, one more thing. A computer scam gang is operating out of the Kandamurti warehouse complex on South Dock Road. The Mahur family runs it." Balbir abruptly ended the call, obviously timing it so it's location couldn't be traced. Then he dialed the central number of the Mumbai Mirror, a local newspaper that aggressively covered crime, and gave them the same report.

*      *      *

 Two days after the confrontation at the dock and rescue of the fifty thousand dollars, I was finally on my way back to Portland, extravagantly comfortable in a business class seat aboard a late-night Lufthansa departure from Mumbai, anxious to put the finishing touches on this story about fulfilling the pledge I had made to my mother. Thirty-five thousand was wired to her bank from the Bank of India account I opened, Gobind was thrilled with the Hazel Ackroyd "Combating Computer Crime" research grant, Balbir was excessively appreciative of my generous tip for "services rendered," and the remainder was just enough to cover my expenses. But to put a cherry on top of this computer scam tale, the Mahur scamming outfit was busted, including the computer ransomware undertaking Maneesha planned to launch. The two nefarious sisters and their despicable minions were either in jail or being charged with crimes. Even though I never got to confront "George," the scammer who wheedled the money from my mother, all-in-all, the adventure was a grand success, even my hope of getting a good story out of it. But as I was about to type a concluding sentence of this paragraph, I was pleasantly interrupted by an elegant attendant who with a soft German accent asked me, "Would you like more champagne, sir?"

I glanced at the last sentence I'd typed, thought for a second, bobbed my head a little, then closed the laptop. I gazed into her inviting blue eyes and said, "Yes, I would. And some more of those warm cashews, as well."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Five

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Maneesha Mahur checked the caller ID when her mobile sang out, then answered. "Amita, my dear sister. What do you want, besides my lopped off head in a basket?"

"That is a good idea, Maneesha, but I have something else in mind right now. But before I get to that, I want to let you know that your weaselly little mole Khalid won’t be giving you any more information about my business. He had an unfortunate accident today and will soon be on his way out to sea."

"What happened? Did he get in the way of one of your bloody carving knives . . . or of Chandra's murderous hands?"

Amita ignored Maneesha's attempt to play down the significance of losing Khalid's spying and changed the subject. "I'm calling about something else, more important than that little rat. Something that might be a threat to both of us. Some American cowboy's nosing around. He told Khalid he wanted to get back money one of my guys scammed from his mother. Seems he's teamed up with some Sikh wanna-be warrior whose helping him."

"You learned this from Khalid?"

"Yes. And to complicate things even more, this guy stole some printouts off Khalid's desk. Seems Khalid intended to give them to you. By the way, as you can imagine, that's something I'm not happy about. Stop spying on me. I'd hate to have to take revenge for your amateur espionage, which you know I'm capable of doing—and wouldn't hesitate a single second to do."

"Okay, okay. Back off. Papa wouldn't want us fighting at a time like this, especially if there really is a threat from this guy. You and little brother Chandra will have to take care of that problem. I've got a bigger one—I need cash. You and Chandra are generating huge profits with your low-tech scamming game. I want you to loan me fifty thousand dollars. We're on the verge of our first big score, and it's for big returns—hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. Huge compared to your piddly hits of a few thousand dollars, if you're lucky."

"Fifty thousand?" What do you need that much for?"

"More computing power. What we're doing is a lot harder than your guys bluffing their way into some dumb user's home computer. We almost got our Trojan Cryptowall into a serious target in the States but were blocked by new security algorithms. My hackers are good, but they're limited by our system—we need more power to get our ransomware past these high power barricades that are being deployed now that they're getting serious about computer security."

Amita thought for a moment, then said, "All right, but I want twenty-five percent of your operation."

"You greedy bitch! I'm not surprised you'd try to take advantage of this situation. Fifteen, no more. And I want the money today."

"Twenty," Amita replied as she watched Chandra wrap Khalid’s body in the bloody rug he had fallen on. "Twenty or nothing. I'll have the money here tomorrow morning. Your Neanderthal henchman, Mukesh, can pick it up after ten." She ended the call without waiting for Maneesha's response and helped herself to another cup of coffee as Chandra dragged the rolled up rug through the doorway.

 

After I paid the thali lunch bill and as Balbir and I started our drive back to the Calplana Elite hotel, Balbir's nephew, Gobind, hurried back to his IIT office to begin an internet search for Chandra Mahur. He was also puzzled why that name Mahur was familiar for some reason but since he couldn't think why, he put the matter aside and focused on Chandra.

As Gobind booted up his desktop system, a graduate student knocked and opened the office door a crack. "Dr. Singh, can you take a look at the new code profiler? It's still inserting code snippets in the wrong places."

Gobind glanced over his shoulder. "No. Later." He jumped up out of his chair and ran over to the office door and locked it, then returned to his computer and scanned the list of file titles on one of the websites he'd broken into. It didn't take long to hit pay dirt—a three-year-old arrest record in one of the Mumbai police department's restricted data bases. The file was labeled 'secret' and was for Chandra's arrest for assault and battery. Not surprisingly, the charges had been dropped the day following the arrest because the alleged victim withdrew his complaint. Justice for sale wasn't that unusual and in itself wasn't of interest to Gobind. The pay dirt was that Chandra's residential address and phone number had not been deleted from the report. Nor had his arrest photos, black and white, front and side views of Chandra's head and upper torso. Balbir would now be able to surveil Chandra's movements, and Gobind would be able to monitor Chandra's calls by hacking into his mobile phone carrier's call system, which for those with the knowhow was as porous as a kitchen sieve.

But Gobind still couldn't get rid of the lingering thought that there was something about the name Mahur that he was missing. On a whim, he did a few more searches, including the IIT student data base. There it was, popping up right away—Amita Mahur, graduated three years ago with an MS degree in computer sciences. He remembered that Deepak Mahur's obituary mentioned a daughter, Amita—Chandra's younger sister. Then it came back to him—she had been dropped from the PhD program because she was caught trying to hack into the Bank of India's foreign operations division. To make matters worse, she had tunneled through the institute's server and used its online links to the bank. Fortunately, she was blocked from actual fund transfers by an effective security wall. Still, what she accomplished was impressive, not only in its level of hacking sophistication but perhaps more importantly with regard to the insight it provided to the perpetrator herself. Amita's advisor, whom Gobind knew to be as ethical as the day is long, at the time described her as brilliant but ethically challenged and sought to have her charged with a criminal act. But the institute had wanted no publicity for a potentially embarrassing hacking scheme by one of its students and was happy to sweep the incident under the rug and be rid of her.

Another hour of searching yielded nothing else about Chandra or Amita, and only a single reference to Chandra's older sister, Maneesha. She was mentioned in an article in the Mumbai edition of India Today as one of several attendees at a 2012 fund-raising function for Jaslok Hospital—nothing else since then. Before getting back to his graduate students and their problem with one of the lab computers, Gobind called Balbir and told him what he had found for Chandra and Amita. When the call ended, Gobind emailed Balbir the police photos of Chandra and the student photo of Amita he had found on the IIT website. After Balbir filled Alex in on what Gobind reported, they continued planning the next day's activities, only now with a major change since they knew where Chandra lived.

 

Balbir's yellow and black Ambassador taxi was sixth in a line of a dozen other taxis parked along the curb of a busy street across from a modern condominium building in a stretch of redevelopment at the edge of Malabar Hill, one of the plushier neighborhoods of Mumbai. It was nine a.m. and he and I were had been watching for the last hour everyone leaving the building either by the front door or in cars from the parking garage. So far, no Chandra. "It's still early, " Balbir said for the third time, finishing his coffee that had gotten cold by then.

"How do you know he's even home?" I asked.

"I don't. But this is the only lead we've got. If Chandra is here, and if he does come out, and if he goes to where he's involved with a scam operation, then at least we'd have a chance to take this hunt to the next step. At this moment, there's no other way to pick up his trail, at least not until Gobind gets a hit from his phone."

"I know you're right. It's just that it's all so much more complicated than I thought it would be. All I wanted to do was go to a bank and demand my mother's money. I didn't expect to get involved with an organized crime investigation. Sometimes I think I should give up this crazy idea and go home."

Balbir started to respond to my discouragement, but instead said, "There he is. In the blue shirt, heading toward the curb."

"That's him, all right. He's getting in that maroon sedan that just pulled up," I said, looking through small binoculars.

A minute later, Balbir was a few cars behind Chandra's Maruti heading south toward the southern tip of Mumbai. Before we got to the next intersection, Balbir's phone buzzed. "It's Gobind," Balbir said when he checked caller ID, then switched to speaker mode and answered. "Gobind. Anything?"

"Chandra called a number I traced to south Mumbai. It may have been his sister, Amita, but no names were mentioned. He's going to wherever she is now. From the cell tower grid, it looks like it's near the Mumbai docks. She said there's a job he's gotta finish. That it's starting to smell. She sounded angry and hung up before he could answer." Gobind then told Balbir he'd let him know if there were more calls.

After the call ended, Balbir smiled and said, "We're getting closer. Now the fun starts."

I couldn't help but notice the flash of excitement in Balbir's eyes. "What's the plan? What are we going to do? With guns blazing, we can't just bust into wherever they are and demand thirty-five thousand dollars, can we?"

Balbir bobbed his head in agreement. "Of course not. We'll take it one step at a time, the way good police work is done. Before each new step, we see what the lay of the land is. That's what we're going to do now. See where Chandra's going, who he's meeting. What he's doing. Then, if it's the right time and place, we make a move. Action that's well thought out and executed according to a plan. So, Alex, don't worry, I'm not going to let you get hurt . . . or killed. But we are going to get your mother's money. And I am going to bust these bastards . . . and, who knows, maybe even get back my job with the police. If Chandra's going where I think he might be going, we may be in for an exciting day."

 

When Chandra's driver pulled up in front of a gate closed across an entrance to a maze of walled-off passage ways and scattered warehouses along one of the roads parallel to a string of commercial docks, Balbir continued driving past as a guard approached Chandra's sedan. When Balbir was out of sight of the gate, he made a U-turn and came back to a dirt side street where he parked with a view of the entrance Chandra went through. "Now we watch and wait," he said.

"Watch and wait for what?" I asked, looking through the binoculars.

"I'm not sure. But we'll know it when we see it." Just then Balbir's phone buzzed. "Gobind. What's up?"

Gobind sounded excited. "I put a trace on Amita's phone. I got her number when Chandra called her this morning. She just got off a call from her sister, Maneesha. Someone named Mukesh is on his way to collect fifty thousand dollars from Amita He's also going to help Chandra get rid of a body. They didn't say whose, but Amita seemed anxious to be rid of it."

Balbir thanked Gobind for the information and filled me in on what he'd just learned. Over the following forty minutes we watched as a dozen young men arrived at or left the warehouse complex, most of them on bicycles or by autorickshaws. Then a late-model SUV pulled up to the gate.

I picked up the binoculars again. "The driver's huge. He's alone."

"Maybe it's Maneesha's guy, Mukesh—coming to collect the fifty thousand dollars and help Chandra with the body. Let's see what happens. And those young guys coming and going are probably scammers working for Amita and Chandra. I have a feeling this place is the heart of their operation."

Half an hour after the SUV disappeared into the maze of buildings, the gate swung open again and the same vehicle eased through and pulled into the street. The big man was at the wheel and headed in the direction away from where Balbir was parked. Chandra was in the passenger seat.

"Let's go," Balbir said, then pulled into the street at a safe distance behind the SUV. "They probably have the body Amita referred to with them. This is our chance to break this case wide open."

I tried to hide my concern about the boldness of Balbir's intentions, whatever they were, but had a hard time controlling my fear. "What are you planning to do? These guys are killers! At least one of them is. They might have guns. Why don't you just call the police?"

"The police? If the Mahurs learned anything from their father, it was to have the right police contacts. Paid-for cops who will protect them. No, calling in the Mumbai cops could end up being far worse for us than for the Mahur gang. Whatever we do, we'll have to do ourselves."

"Balbir! We can't take these guys on —they'll kill us."

"That is a theoretical possibility. But we're not going to let that happen. Surprise and boldness, along with this,” at that point he reached under his seat and withdrew a pistol, "should turn the odds in our favor."

"Oh my God. Balbir, I—"

"Look," Balbir said. "They're turning into an alley that goes down to one of the docks." He slowed, then pulled off the street and parked in the dirt strip next to a crumbling wall bordering a long, shambling warehouse.

"What are we going to do now?" I asked, panic building fast, afraid he would say what I thought he might. And he did.

"We'll follow them on foot. They won't hear us. And if we stay in the shadows of those banyan trees along that alleyway, they won't see us either.

"But—"

"Alex! All we're going to do is see what they're up to. If they're doing what I think they are, taking a body out to dump in the bay, we'll video it. We'll use that evidence to bust this gang . . . and get your money. You'll be back on a plane heading home soon. Okay? You do trust me, don't you?"

"Yeah, but—"

"Do you have your phone with you?" Balbir interrupted.

I took my phone out and showed it to him, as if I needed to prove I wasn't completely useless.

"Good. Get photos or videos of anything important. Let's go."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Four

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"Do you recognize any of those names?" I asked, after laying the three print-outs of recent e-mails back on the table where Balbir put them a few minutes earlier.

Balbir shook his head. "No. but that's not a surprise. When I was on the force, the criminal gangs were mostly into the old-fashion vices—prostitution, drugs, gambling, protection, extortion, that kind of thing. High-tech computer scamming was handled by a different division, and its rapid growth is more recent. From what I hear, it's huge. There're more tech-savvy kids than legitimate jobs for them. Especially in Mumbai. I also hear, it pays well."

I nodded at the papers. "We need to trace those names. It's the only thing we have to go on, isn't it?"

"You're the journalist," Balbir said. "Do an internet search. See what you can find. We also found the banker, for want of a better description of what he actually is. He's obviously connected to whoever took your mother's funds. Maybe her account number's in these lists," he said, glancing at the other pile of print-outs.

"I planned to do a search. I was just wondering if you knew someone here in Mumbai who could help with the complicated tech stuff," I said, as I booted up my laptop. While waiting to connect with the hotel's Wi-Fi, I handed my mother's banking information to Balbir. " Here's her account number. Her phone number's there, too. Maybe it'll be on those lists."

I pulled up Google and typed in one of the names from the sheets of emails while Balbir scanned the account numbers. A few minutes later he said, "She's not here."

"I struck out, too. At least for this person, Ambar Sengupta. I'll try the other name, Chandra Mahur"

Balbir looked up from the printout he was studying. "Mahur? That family name rings a bell . . . but not Chandra. See what you can find for 'Mahur and Mumbai crime.' "

I typed those three words. Finally, on the twelfth page of Google hits I found a link to a 2011 article in the Mumbai News. It reported the death of a Mumbai mobster named Deepak Mahur. "Is this guy familiar? His partially decomposed body was found in Mahim Creek."

Balbir nodded. "Yeah I remember him. A vicious, mid-level gangster in one of the South Mumbai gangs. See if you can find a more complete report on his death. Or an obituary, if there is one. Maybe he had some children who followed in his footsteps."

A few minutes later I struck pay dirt—a short notice on the fifteenth page of Google hits. I skimmed the write-up, then read part of it out loud, "Mr. Mahur's survivors include a son, twenty-three year-old Chandra, and two unmarried daughters, Amita, age twenty-eight, and Maneesha, age thirty three."

"That's it!" Balbir exclaimed. "The son—Chandra. He must be the connection between the banker and the scam. We need to find him. I bet he's running a call center focused on scamming gullible targets like your mother. Maybe he's traded his father's world of extortion and murder for the less dangerous enterprise of hi-tech crime."

"Why can't we just get the banker to give the money back to me? Wouldn't that be easier than chasing down this gangster?"

Balbir shrugged his shoulders. "There're a couple of problems with that. First, it's unlikely we'd find him in that rat-hole of an office in that rundown mall in Bandra. Whoever he works for would have shut it down by now. Second, even if we did find him, short of physical violence we'd have no way of getting him to pay up. And I don't recommend getting physical with these people. If we try to play tough in their league, chances are we'd end up as two more corpses in Mahim Creek. No. The only way to get the money back is to convince whoever's running this scam operation that it's in their best interest to give your mom a refund, so to speak."

I saw the logic of what Balbir said but was at a loss about how to go about such an undertaking. "What do you think we should do?" I asked.

"Simple. Find Chandra Mahur and, like in that movie, make him an offer he can't refuse."

At first, I thought he was kidding, trying to be funny. But I then I realized he was dead serious. The look on his face and the tone of his voice made that clear—he intended to do what he said. Or at least try. What bothered me was the fact that if he failed, I'd go down with him. And I sure as hell didn't like the idea of joining Chandra's gangster father as fish food at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. "How do you propose we go about executing this simple plan of yours?" I asked half in jest, half hoping he actually did have a plan of some sort.

He answered immediately, apparently impatient to tell me. "We'll start with my nephew, Gobind. He's on the faculty at IIT, here in Mumbai. He's an information technology professor. We've got to locate Chandra's operation and get inside it, hack into it, then use it against him."

I was stunned at the audacity of Balbir's proposal, at the idea of illegal hacking, especially into the scamming operation of a Mumbai criminal. The risk seemed far greater than the amount of money we might recover. On the other hand, the journalist side of me was hooked by the possibility of accomplishing such a feat, then writing a feature article describing what I'd done. The thought of a Pulitzer flashed through my mind. "Okay," I said. "When can we see him?"

Balbir grabbed his phone. "I'll call him now."

Balbir picked me up at noon the following day. When I settled into the passenger seat of his taxi, he said, "We're having lunch with my nephew at one. We'll meet him at a Panchavati Gaurav thali restaurant in Powai. It's near ITT."

"Thali? What's that?" I loved Indian cuisine but wasn't familiar with that word.

"A thali meal has individual dishes from the six basic flavors—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and spicy—it's usually vegetarian. Panchavati is a chain offering food at half the price of fancy competitors whose thali isn't nearly as good."

"Okay.  But tell me about your nephew. And how far is it to this Powai place?"

"Powai's about six or seven miles from here—a couple of miles north of the airport. It's on the southern edge of Powai lake. The IIT campus is on the northern edge."

"And your nephew? What about him?"

Balbir pulled out of the hotel driveway and headed for the Western Express Highway. "Gobind is my older sister's youngest son. He's a computer whiz. He graduated from the institutes Computer Science program in three years and was accepted into its graduate program. He got a PhD three years later. Now he's a Professor in that department. The youngest one ever. His specialty is computer crime."

"He sounds like the right guy for this job. Did you tell him about what I want to do? About my mom's money?"

Balbir gave me a look. "You mean 'we', don't you?"

"Yeah, sure. It's just that I still have a hard time accepting that you are willing to get involved in such a risky endeavor with a guy you just met. That's all."

"Well, accept it. As I said yesterday, I've got my reasons. As far as I'm concerned, we're in this together. Now we just have to convince Gobind to join us."

"How're we going to do that?" I asked when Balbir stopped for a traffic light and as I tried to ignore the young girl saying something at my window. She was holding a filthy infant in one arm and patting her mouth with the other hand to stress her hunger.

The light turned green and Balbir sped forward, obviously aware of my discomfort. "I told him about what you want to do. And why." He  understands how cracking a computer scamming operation would benefit his career. Gobind's an ambitious guy. He's interested, all right."

Balbir spotted Gobind in a booth near the back of the room as soon as we entered  Panchavati's. When he stood to greet us, I was struck by his resemblance to Balbir—same tall, broad-shouldered build, same neatly trimmed beard, same air of self-confidence. Besides his age, only his turban was different, blue instead of green. He had a firm handshake, like his uncle, and  seemed happy to be meeting with us.

After we sat and Gobind poured tea, Balbir gave him a brief summary of what we had done the day before. Then Gobind ordered thali for three from the waiter who had been hovering nearby. With these preliminaries out of the way, I filled Gobind in on exactly what happened to my mom. I showed him what I found out from her bank and the FTC computer scam group and gave him copies of the printouts we got from the Bandra banker's office.

He was still going through the information when our food arrived. He laid the papers aside and began to describe the various dishes, even to the point of telling me the differences between the thalis from the different regions of India. The food was as good as Balbir said it would be, and Gobind's culinary history was fascinating, even though I was more interested in Gobind's thoughts on how to get back my mother's money and whether or not he would help us. And if he would, how.

Finally, after the plates and serving dishes were cleared from the table, I broached the problem. "So, what do you think? Is there any chance of success?"

"What do you mean by success?" Gobind asked.

I started to say it was getting the money back but then hesitated, the question spinning around in my thoughts. Finally, I said. "Several things. Getting my mother’s money back, but it’s more than just that. I want whoever did this to be punished. Stealing from an old lady who isn't sharp enough to fend off an attack on her financial security warrants nothing less."

Gobind nodded, then said, "Uncle Balbir told me you’re a journalist. Is that really why you’re here?"

The directness of his question caught me off guard. "Ah . . . yeah, that's part of it. But not all of it. I'm my mother's only child and feel responsible for her. That includes her financial security. She needs that money. On the other hand, I won't deny that I'd like to do a story on this topic. Afterall, journalism is my occupation. Do you have a problem with that?"

Gobind glanced at Balbir.

Balbir shrugged his shoulders and bobbed his head a little.

Gobind turned back to me. "Okay. I can live with that. I just needed to know what your motives were. If I take this on, I need to know that you're committed to seeing it through to the end, whatever that might be. And I wouldn't mind if you do a story about what we find, especially if you show me in a good light. I've got a career to think about, too."

 I reached across the table and we shook hands. Then Gobind poured more tea and ordered kheer for dessert. 

Meanwhile, ten miles to the south, a heated conversation was taking place in a closed-door office next to a large windowless room on the second floor of a dilapidated warehouse near the southern tip of Mumbai. The big windowless room was occupied by two dozen young men sitting at computer terminals and with earbuds tethered to phone sets plugged into their computer modules. The constant hum of  chatter was mostly in English and focused on convincing call targets to give the callers access to their computers. That was the hard part, but if that was achieved, the next part was easier—scamming money from them, the amount depending only on how much could be extracted from whatever was found in the target's files and links. The success rate averaged one hit for every twenty-two calls, not bad since it only took about an hour to make those calls.

In the office, a woman questioning the Bandra banker was highly agitated. "How did he find your location? That rundown mall was supposed to be under the radar—at least that's what you told us when we set your office up there. Who is he?" Her voice revealed a level of concern rarely seen in her usual icy calm.

The banker looked back and forth from the woman to a man who sat next to her but saw only threat in their eyes. He shuddered, then said, "I told you, I don't know who he is or how he found me. All I know is that he and a big Sikh guy burst into the office and took some papers off my desk when the security guard came in and attacked him. There was a fight and a lot of confusion. They ran out before the police got there. I discovered the printouts were missing after they left."

"Papers?" Chandra Mahur, who had sent the emails Alex stole copies of, stood and walked around the table to where the banker sat—a short length of rope with wooden grips at each end dangled from one hand. "What papers, Khalid?"

"I was sorting out the week's transfers. They were lists of bank account numbers we got money from, and the telephone numbers of the targets, that's all."

"That's all? Nothing else?"

Kahlid knew the fate of those who had lied to one or other of the Mahur clan in the past. "Ah . . . there were printouts of a couple of emails," he said in a trembling voice.

Chandra's laid the garrote on one of Khalid's shoulders. "What emails?"

Khalid glanced at the wood-handled rope hanging down in front of him and shuddered. "Three of them. From you to Sengupta. Authorizing transfers between accounts."

"You had sensitive communications like that lying around on your desk? What the hell were you thinking?"

"I didn't think anyone would suddenly come out of nowhere  and steal them. I was just doing my job."

Amita, Chandra's younger sister and who had been badgering Kahlid, slammed her fist on the table. "Stop" Both of you! The damage has been done. This American, or whatever he is, has this information now. That's one problem, and we need to take care of it. But what really concerns me is why you printed out this stuff. What were you gonna do with those copies?"

Unable to answer, Khalid looked down at the table top and trembled with fear.

Amita nodded at Chandra. Suddenly Chandra's rope was looped around Khalid's scrawny neck. Khalid grabbed at the tightening garrote as he gasped desperately. Then Chandra released the pressure and Khalid sucked in as much air as he could.

Amita continued as if nothing had happened. "Khalid! Look at me. What were you going to do with those printouts?"

 

When Khalid hesitated, Chandra tightened the rope.

"Maneesha wanted them," Khalid blurted out, probably realizing he was signing his death warrant by doing so.

Amita jumped to her feet and screamed, "You were gonna give them to my bitch from hell sister?"

Khalid was shaking and whimpering so much he was barely able to answer. "She said if I didn't keep her informed about the money your operation was bringing in, she'd have Mukesh visit me. You know what that means. I had no other choice—she's ruthless, and Mukesh is a monster."

Amita nodded at Chandra. Sixty seconds later, Khalid was dead.

Ignoring Khalid's limp body slide off the chair onto the floor, Amita kept her focus on her brother. "What was it he said about the man who took the printouts off his desk?"

"Something about his mother. Said he wanted a refund."

Amita nodded toward the door. "Talk to the guys out there. See what you can find out about that. Sounds like a scam that went bad."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Three

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I was well-rested from a good night's sleep and fortified with an excellent breakfast—Balbir had been right about the hotel's restaurant—when a call from the front desk informed me my driver had arrived. I was anxious to get on with my quest, and when I climbed into the back of Balbir's taxi and greeted him with a friendly hello, I blurted out, "Let's start with the bank."

"May I see that address again?" Balbir asked after returning my greeting. I handed him the printout. "Maharashtra Road. I think it's somewhere around the Bandra Railway Station. It might take a while, but I'll find it."

Because of the heavy traffic, far worse than the previous night, which had been bad enough, it did take a while. But finally, we got to the right location and Balbir edged through a throng of pedestrians walking along the edge of the street—there was no sidewalk—and parked as far out of the stream of human traffic as possible. We were on the opposite side of a wide street, across from an older, four-story shopping mall. Its splotchy, black mildew and peeling paint was in stark contrast to the shiny new malls springing up like mushrooms in the Mumbai suburbs north of the city center. A gaudy sign said, "Bandra 311 Mall." 311 was the address of the bank I was looking for.

A string of small shops at street-level sat back about a dozen feet from the road: auto parts, mobile phones, house wares, bicycle repair, a pharmacy, spices, a tea shop, all of them crowded with shoppers and apparently doing a thriving business. A broad, open terrace occupied the front section of the open-air second level and was bordered on both sides and at the rear with more shops. Stairs at each end of the street-front shops led up to the terrace. The businesses scattered around that level were higher-end: gold jewelry, Titan watches, handicrafts, men's clothing, saris, and home textiles, among others.

After studying the shops on both levels, Balbir said, "I don't see any bank. If it's here, it must be one of the businesses in those upper floors. There should be a directory up there. There's a stairwell in the middle of the back wall. Let's see what we can find."

From Balbir's observations and statement, he seemed to be offering to accompany me in my search for the Bandra Crescent Bank, a welcome offer since he was far more capable of navigating this mall than I would ever be.

The directory of occupants on the wall next to the stairs to the upper levels listed Crescent Bank of Bandra in Suite 423. We made our way up to the fourth floor where we saw a sign indicating Suites 400-423 to the left, down a dank hallway lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the low ceiling.

I knocked on the door, which had no signage or other information other than the suite number, then opened it without waiting for a response. The only man in the small, windowless room glanced up from his computer screen when we entered. From the look on his face, he was apparently shocked at our sudden appearance. He quickly shut the laptop and stood up, scanned the papers and files scattered across his desk, then said, "Who are you? What do you want?" He looked to be in his thirties, maybe early forties, thin, bespectacled, longish oily hair covering his ears and reaching his shoulders. He was attired in dark slacks and a blue, long-sleeved dress shirt. A gold Rolex peeked out from the edge of the shirt cuff on his left arm and a gaudy gold ring adorned the pinky finger of his right hand. He seemed to be nervous and continued to glance at the papers spread out around him.

"Is this the Bandra Crescent Bank?" I asked without introducing myself or answering his questions. Balbir, who had remained standing in the doorway for a few seconds, stepped forward, closed the door, and moved next to me.

Scrutinizing Balbir, then turning back to me, the man repeated, "Who are you?"

"One if your customers."

"What? What are you talking about?" he asked, then sat back down in his chair.

"I've come all the way from the United States for a refund. A refund for a recent transaction of yours that was fraudulent. That's what I'm talking about.

"You better get out of here," the banker said, as he pulled his chair closer to the desk and began frantically gathering the loose papers and file folders. As he reached for the ones close to where I stood, I took a step forward and planted my hands palm-down on the desk top, pressing on a sheaf of the papers almost without noticing. I leaned in close to his face, prepared to follow up on my challenge. But before I was able to say anything, the door burst open and a burly man rushed into the already crowded room. He had on a shabby, brown uniform and wore scuffed-up boots. He held a wooden baton in his hand that was raised in my direction. In what seemed like an unmeasurable flash of time, Balbir drove a crushing blow into the guard's face and then in a seamlessly continuous movement slammed his other fist into the man's wrist ,which sent the baton flying onto the gritty floor. When Balbir hit the guard, the banker jumped up out of his chair and crouched back against the wall behind him.

As I turned away from the banker in response to what had just happened, Balbir grabbed my arm and said, "We have to go, now."

"I want to get my mother's money back first," I said, as if that would actually happen in the chaos of the moment.

"No! We need to get out of here!" The urgency in Balbir's command got my attention and I followed him out of the room, leaving the guard on the floor with blood streaming from his crushed nose and the banker cowering behind his desk sputtering what must have been obscenities.

Balbir hurried along the hall with me close behind. At the stairwell, we encountered two khaki-clad policemen coming up the stairs.

Before either policeman noticed us standing on the landing, Balbir, in a calm voice, said, "Officers, something's going down there," and pointed toward the office we had just left. "We heard some yelling. Sounded like someone might be in trouble."

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" One of the policemen said as they continued their way up.

Balbir answered at once. "We were at the mall office at the other end of the hall. My rent was due."

When the policemen reached the top of the stairs, they paused and one of them looked at me, glanced at my computer bag, and asked, "Who are you?"

"A friend of Mr. Singh's. His cousin is my neighbor in the States," I answered with a straight face.

The other cop said, "Wait here," then both of them started down the hallway toward the bank office.

When the officers were no more than ten feet along the hall, Balbir silently motioned for me to follow him down the stairs. We were careful not to make any noise while we went as fast as we could. A few seconds later we were back on the terrace, then made our way through the milling crowd to Balbir's taxi as quickly as we could without attracting attention. As we pulled into traffic a moment later, I glanced up at the terrace level and spotted the two policemen running toward the stairs to the street. Luckily, they didn't notice us as we vanished in the chaos of Maharastra Road.

When Balbir pulled his taxi into the courtyard of the Calplana Elite Hotel an hour later, I asked him to join me in the restaurant—we had a lot to consider. During the drive from the mall to the hotel we had talked some, but the attention Balbir had to pay to the harrowing traffic prevented us from exploring the full ramifications of what happened at the bank. I also wanted to know more about this man whose quick action got us out of what could have turned out to be a disastrous situation, to say the least. His actions exceeded what would be expected from the usual Mumbai taxi driver, and I wanted to understand how that could be.

Seated in a small alcove off the hotel lobby with a platter of warm samosas and cups of steaming chai on the table between us, I thanked him again for managing our successful escape from the guard and the two policemen. Then I addressed one of the issues that had been bothering me. "How did the security guard and the police know to come to the banker's office? And get there so fast?"

"When you said you were there for a refund, the banker reached under his desk, an obvious move to use an alarm button to call for help. A crooked enterprise like the one he's involved in always has a stable of paid-for cops who provide protection. The alarm must have alerted the mall security guard as well. These phony businesses are embedded in the local economy and plant corruption at all levels. You may be up against a formidable foe, which might even be controlled by one of the organized crime gangs. If that turned out to be the case, the best thing you could do would be to get out of Mumbai as fast as possible.

"Are you saying there's no chance of getting my mother's money back? That I should just turn tail and go home?"

Balbir picked up a samosa and dipped it in a bowl of tamarind sauce, bit off half of it, then placed the remainder on a small plate in front of him. Then he took a drink of chai. "Not necessarily. We need to dig deeper into the group that hacked your mother. If we're lucky, they might just be an independent gang having nothing to do with organized crime. But we'd still have to be careful—stirring a simmering pot too vigorously can cause it to boil over."

I was stunned by his offer. "We? You mean you're willing to help chase down the hacker? Why would you do that?"

"Why would I do that? I've been wondering the same thing. Maybe  because of the encounter we had at the banker's office. Seeing again how dangerous our world here in Mumbai is. How, without help, could a naïve foreigner like you ever get justice for your mother? In fact, if you persist in this mission alone, your unrecognizable corpse would probably be drifting out to sea within twenty-four hours. "

"That's an admirable sentiment, and I am well-aware of the extent of criminality in Mumbai, but it's not an answer to my question. Why would you help me? You don't even know who I am."

"I know enough about you. Your journalism is easily found on the internet, which I did last night. But this has more to do with me than you."

"What do you mean?

Balbir took another drink of tea then ate the rest of the samosa. "I may as well tell you. You'd find out sooner or later. I was an officer with the Mumbai police Organized Crime Unit. They discharged me five years ago, what they called early retirement."

"Early retirement? You're not that old."

"No. I'm not. The problem was, I wasn't willing to go along with the corruption. I was the only officer who wasn't on the payroll of the gangs. I was an honest cop, a difficult path to follow in today's police force. It didn't help that I'm a Sikh either, a definite disadvantage among a majority Hindu force."

"Your police background explains your quick actions at the banker's office. But won't those two cops who came up the stairs put two and two together and come looking for you?"

"Maybe, but they're not on the Mumbai city force. They're Bandra police and might not know about me, especially with five years gone by. But as a precaution maybe I should shave my beard and get rid of the turban. I'm sure God would understand."

I smiled at his crack about God but didn't say anything since I wasn't sure how serious he was, or if he was at all. I knew Sikhism was a monotheistic religion but had no idea how devoted Balbir was to its teachings. Possibly picking up on my uncertainty, he said, "One of our gurus said that one must first try peaceful negotiation in the pursuit of justice, but if that fails it's legitimate to draw the sword in defense of righteousness.

"Does that explain why there are so many Sikhs in the Indian Army?" I had discovered that obscure fact during one of my previous projects.

Balbir nodded. "We're only two percent of the population but make up twenty percent of the armed forces. Yes. It has a lot to do with that philosophy. And if you're wondering, as I'm sure you must be, it's also why I'm willing to help you in your fight against the criminals who stole your mother's money."

Almost overwhelmed by his offer, I reached across the table and we shook hands. "Thank you, Mr. . . . ah . . . do you mind if I call you Balbir? We may as well be on a first-name basis if we're going to be partners in this crusade."

"Not at all," he said without delay.

I smiled and said, "Then from now on, it's Alex, Balbir, not 'sir.' But do you think we have a chance of winning?"

"As far as our chances of winning, I'd say the odds are not in our favor. But we Sikhs have a long history of those kinds of odds, and we're still here. And we shouldn't give up before we even start. Sometimes, things that move an investigation forward appear at the most unexpected times, or from unexpected sources. We have to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities."

It was then I remembered a crucial moment at the Bandra bank office when the security guard burst in, and I withdrew a folded sheaf of papers from my pants pocket. "Here, look at these. I grabbed them off the banker's desk when all hell broke loose. I'm pretty sure he didn't notice me take them."

Balbir carefully examined each of the seven sheets of standard-size, white copy paper, sorting them into two piles as he went. When he finished, he said, "Four of these have lists of numbers, probably phone numbers and account IDs. The others are copies of e-mail communications— printouts that show e-mail addresses and text—senders' names, too. They may lead us to the next link in the money chain. Or, on the other hand, they may tell us whom to avoid. Either way, your quick thinking gives us somewhere to start."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Two

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The next morning, I was with my mother in the dining room of her second-tier retirement complex at 9:10, finishing my third cup of watery coffee. She was visibly shaken, in shock from discovering that her savings and checking accounts had been depleted. The bank claimed they couldn't do anything to help since the accounts had been accessed with the correct username and password. I'd also reported the scam to the Federal Trade Commission Scam Hotline and the FBI Computer Crimes Division, but there was nothing either of them could do to recover the funds either—that was beyond their charter. They simply listed my mom as another casualty. Like others scammed this way, there seemed to be no resort, nothing the victims could do.

My mother was now financially destitute since she had no income other than her monthly Social Security check, which wasn't enough to meet  her expenses. Retirement wasn't cheap, even in a relatively low-level establishment like Walnut Grove Villa. Not only had she been ripped-off twelve years earlier by her now-deceased, ne'er-do-well third husband, but it had happened again. This time by someone just as evil—and apparently just as impossible to recover the money from. I loved my mother and empathized with her situation, especially as she was drifting closer to the dark void of dementia. As I sat there witnessing her emotional distress, I became more incensed by the viciousness of what an uncaring scammer did to her—the pain and misery he'd caused. That's when it hit me—I would find the bastard and get her money back. I had no idea how, but I intended to find a way. Not incidentally, I felt it might be a good story, too. And like any other journalist, I'm always open to a good story.

The first thing I did after getting mom calmed down and settled in her knitting group's Friday morning get-together, was to get back on the phone with the FTC scam center. After three frustrating transfers, I hooked up with a guy named Arvin Klooper, the agency's specialist for India-based scams. He wasn't surprised when I told him what happened when I had called the number the scammer used, which was listed in my mother's phone's calls log. "They all use untraceable voice-over-internet numbers. You'll never find him that way," he explained, as if I were a first grader asking about a Game Boy glitch.

So how can I find who did it?" I asked.

"What? You wanna' try to find this guy? Why? What good would that do?"

"I'm gonna get my mom's money back. And I'm gonna kick his ass. Teach him a lesson."

Other than a few sighs and rapid clicks of keyboard action, there was a long silence at Arvin's end. Then, just before I started to ask if he was still there, he said, "All right. The only way to find who stole your mother's money would be through her bank. And then, and only then, if I knew what records they might find, and if I snuck into a restricted agency channel to trace the transfers, I might, just might, be able to help you. That's a lot of ifs."

"Please," I said, "you gotta try. Somebody needs to. These son's-of-bitches are causing financial havoc to innocent victims. Sure, I want to get my mom's money back. But I also want to make an example of these people. Make a big splash in the news. Let more people know what's goin' on with these scammers." Then I told him I was a freelance-investigative reporter. "Check out my articles. My credentials," I implored.

I waited while Arvin put me on hold and Googled my work. He came back on the line few minutes later. "Okay. If you get me the bank's information about her funds transfer. I'll see what I can do. I can't promise anything, but I'll give it a try."

The loss of her money was enough to break through mom's wall of stubbornness and convince her to grant me power of attorney for her affairs, something I'd been trying to persuade her to do for several years. As they say, money talks, so does the loss of it. Armed with that legal power, and with the implied threat of disclosure of non-cooperation, I convinced the bank's fraud department to trace the path of my mother's money's disappearance into the convoluted banking labyrinth of India. They got as far as an international bank in New Delhi. I passed that connection on to Arvin, and the following day he told me he'd been able to trace the next transfer to a recently established local bank in Mumbai—The Crescent Bank of Bandra. After he emailed me the bank name, address, and the account number into which the funds were deposited, I booked a flight to Mumbai.

*      *      *

I landed at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport three days later, at 1:35 AM, exhausted from twenty hours of crowded coach-class travel and with second thoughts about my hasty decision to track down the culprit who stole my mother's nest egg. I'd been to India before, for a story about outsourcing computer programming by American tech companies, so I wasn't surprised when exiting the terminal, I encountered what seemed like total chaos. A surging crowd of frenzied travelers was trying to squeeze into the terminal through the two entrance doors, baggage carriers grabbed at my carry-on, hotel reps and wanna-be guides were vying for my attention, and taxi drivers were flogging their services. The pungent smell of India penetrated the humid, hot night air and immediately brought back strong memories of my previous visit. I could detect the smoke from cow dung patty fires blended with the stench of open sewers wafting from the nearby slums, tinged with the aroma of whatever flowers happened to be blooming and street food cooking close by. Ignoring the out-stretched hands and verbal onslaught, I struggled through the throng to the edge of the wide sidewalk and waved at the driver who was first in an impossibly long line of yellow and black taxies. When he pulled up to where I waited, the tall, broad-shouldered, turbaned and bearded driver got out and took my suitcase After he put it in the trunk, he asked, "Sir. Where do you want to go?"

I took a folded paper from my shirt pocket and handed it to him. "To this hotel. Do you know it?"

He studied it a moment, then, with a frown on his face, asked, "Are you sure this is right? Ghatkapor Garden Palace?"

"I sensed his concern. "Yes. I made a reservation over the internet—at their website. Is there a problem?"

Just then another taxi pulled behind the Sikh's and honked aggressively. A family of six with an assortment of cloth bags, rope-tied boxes, and mismatched luggage was obviously anxious to get to their destination.

"Please, sir. Get in. We should go."

When we were out of the airport area and heading south on a busy main road, the driver said, "Sir, that hotel is in an unsafe area and has a bad reputation."

"It looked okay on their website. What's wrong with it?"

"Trust me, sir. It's not for you. It's a place where women come and go. Rooms can be rented by the hour. Do you know what I mean? And it's a dangerous neighborhood."

"Are you trying to steer me to a more expensive hotel? Do you get a kickback if you do?"

"No sir. I am only telling you what is true."

"Isn't it near the airport?"

"Yes. Only a few miles from here."

"All right. Let's go. I want to see what it's like. Then I'll decide."

Even at that ungodly hour, traffic was surprisingly heavy. Smoke-billowing, garishly-painted diesel trucks crowded the two-lane road and honked their horns at the slightest provocation. A thick haze of dust and smoke dimmed the light from flickering infrequent street lamps. Pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, feral dogs, ox carts, and occasional cows forced the fast-moving traffic into perilously narrow lanes. But my driver navigated with apparent ease, seemingly oblivious to what I perceived as either unavoidable collisions ahead of us or else looming, impenetrable congestion.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled into a dusty alley that led to a poorly-lit, trash-littered, hard-packed dirt courtyard bordered on three sides by mold-stained, four-story concrete buildings. On one of the buildings, a yellow neon sign over a door with peeling red paint said, "Ghatkapor Garden Palace." Just then two women in short skirts and flimsy blouses emerged from the building and made their way teetering on high heels toward a waiting three-wheeler parked by the entrance.

"This doesn't look anything like what they showed on their website," I said. "You were right. I can’t stay here. Do you know of a good hotel that isn't too expensive?"

"I know of several. It depends on what part of Mumbai you need to be in. The traffic is so bad that sometimes it takes hours to go from one part of the city to another."

I took a sheet of paper out my computer case and showed him the address of the bank I intended to visit.

He looked at the printout for a moment. "The Calplana Elite's in this area. It's Indian-managed, not expensive, and clean. They have a good restaurant, too."

"Okay," I said with relief.

The Calplana was on a side street half a block off the main road. There was less dust in the air and traffic noise was barely noticeable. Its front entrance was set back from the street and bordered by flowering trees and well-tended flower beds. The driver carried my bag into the office, rang the bell at the desk, and waited with me until a sleepy clerk shuffled out of a room behind the check-in area. The lobby was well-appointed with a rattan lounge and several chairs. Fragrant flower arrangements stood on each of two tables where glossy magazines were spread out. I nodded my approval at the driver who then exchanged a few words in Marathi with the clerk. He stepped a few paces away while I checked in.

Holding my room key, I went over to where the driver waited. "How much do I owe you?"

"He glanced at his watch. "Six hundred rupees."

Quick calculation told me that was about eight dollars. He could have charged twice that much, and I would have been happy to pay it. "That seems low. Shouldn't it be more?" I handed him a thousand rupees and said, "Here. Thank you for your help tonight."

He thanked me, put the banknote in his pants pocket, then turned and started toward the door. But before he took more than a few steps, I said, "Just a moment, Mr. . . ."

He stopped and turned to face me. "Singh. Balbir Singh."

I was struck by the unmistakable pride in his response. I returned his gaze and said, "I'd like to employ your services tomorrow. I have some business to do and need a driver." I went to where he stood and extended my hand. "My name is Alex Ackroyd."

He shook my hand with a firm grip, then asked, "Where is your business?"

"At that bank. The one I told you about."

"It's in East Bandra. Not too far from here. You could take a tuk-tuk—an auto rickshaw. Cheaper than me, or any taxi."

"I know I could. This isn't my first visit to India. But I'd prefer to have you drive. There might be other places I'd need to go."

He was silent for a moment, then said, "I know the East Bandra district. I've never seen a bank named Crescent anywhere around there . . .are you sure about the address?"

"It's a new bank. The person who found it for me said it opened up only a few months ago."

"Hmm . . . all right. What time do you want me to pick you up?"

"I need to get some sleep. How about one o'clock?

"No problem. I'll see you then. Good night."

I watched as he walked to his taxi then drive out of the hotel's courtyard, grateful he would return the next day. Something about him gave me a feeling he would make my task in Mumbai easier.

Late Night Helpline: Episode One

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The bazaar adventure, the topic of this story, began a month ago with a telephone call at two in the morning. I didn't recognize the number revealed in the caller ID window—but grogginess from being jolted out of deep sleep must have been why it didn't occur to me it might be a scam call. In fact, my first thought was of my elderly mother, so I answered.

Having traveled extensively as an investigative reporter, and having encountered all kinds of people, I immediately recognized the voice as South Asian, probably Indian or Pakistani. Assuming the caller was just another scammer trolling for a victim, I started to hang up. But before I did, I caught the words Hazel Ackroyd and bank account. Hazel Ackroyd is my mother's name. He didn't say who's bank account he was referring to, but I assumed it was hers since she did online banking, even though I'd tried unsuccessfully many times to discourage her from doing so. My instant reaction was that she'd been scammed, and my heart rate shifted into overdrive.

"Who is this?" I asked, as if some cunning scammer in an undisclosed call center in Southeast Asia would give me his name, not that it made any difference anyway.

"George," he said with a lilt in his voice, then quickly added, "Don't hang up, Mr. Ackroyd. I am a technical specialist with Microsoft and I only want to help you."

My initial grogginess changed to concern, and I paid no attention to his offer of help. "What do you have to do with my mother? And what did you say about a bank account? What's going on?"

"Yes, Mr. Ackroyd. Those are the right questions. That is why I am calling, good sir."

"What are you talking about?" I fought to control my agitation.

"Sir. I am calling only to help you with your problem. But you must keep calm and do what I say."

"What do you mean my problem? I don't have a problem. What have you done to my mother?"

"Please, Mr. Ackroyd, It will not be helpful if you become angry. You must listen to me carefully and do what I tell you. Do you understand?"

"No! I don't understand anything you're saying, and I don't care. You're a scammer and a lowlife. I'm hanging up right now."

I started to click off but hesitated when he said, "Wait, good sir. Check your computer and you will see why I am calling."

My heart skipped a beat. My computer was my lifeline to the world—to my livelihood. The possibility of a break-in or corruption was enough to get my attention. "What have you done?" I yelled.

His voice took a more menacing direction. "Turn on your computer, Mr. Ackroyd."

I ran to the dining room table where I did my work and booted up. A moment later I was logged on and everything looked normal. I opened a document I was currently working on—no problem. "What are you talking about?" I said into the phone, my irritation at this remote voice somewhat tempered by my confusion at finding nothing amiss.

"Now watch," the man called George said in a stone-cold voice.

Suddenly the computer screen went black.

"What did you do?" I cried out, as if he were in the room with me.

"Mr. Ackroyd? Now will you listen to what I say?"

I was stunned by the sudden reality that I was the victim of a hacker, a hacker who intended to hold me ransom by threatening my livelihood. "What do you want?"

"Only to help you. To remove the virus contaminating your computer. It was transferred from your mother's system by her email. My job as a Microsoft Technical Support Specialist is to restore your computer to how it was before the attack."

Ignoring what he was telling me, I asked, "Why did you mention my mother's bank account?"

"The virus started with her computer. I was able to decontaminate it only a little while ago. Now I will clean your system, like I did hers."

"What about her bank account? What did you do?"

"She was confused about how to pay for my service, so I had to help her. I accessed her account and took my payment."

"You stole from her, didn't you? You bastard son-of-a-bitch. How did you get into her account?"

"Please Mr. Ackroyd, language like that in not necessary. If you persist, I will have to tell my supervisor. Your sweet mother gave me remote access to her computer. Her passwords were in a file named 'Passwords.' The same kind of remote access is what you have to give me now so I can fix your computer."

"Turn my computer back on," I screamed. I flinched at the feeling of blood pulsing in my neck and temples.

"I am so sorry, Mr. Ackroyd, but I can't do that. First, you have to pay me."

His brazen demand finally brought me to my senses. "I'm not paying you anything," I spat out before abruptly ending the call, not bothering to tell him there was no access to my bank account from my computer. I figured my tech consultant could get rid of whatever this swindler had planted in my computer, so I would call him first thing in the morning. But right then, I needed to find out what he'd done to my mother. I assumed she must still be awake if he got into her system only a little while back. When I called her, she answered on the second ring.

"Mom. It's me, Alex."

"Oh, Alex. I'm so glad it's you. I wanted to call but didn't want to wake you up." Her voice was wavering. "My computer had a virus, but a nice man from Microsoft fixed it. But now it won't turn on. I don't know what to do."

"Mom! It's the middle of the night. Go back to bed. We'll deal with it in the morning." At that moment I didn't want to bring up the scam or her bank account—she was already worried and confused enough. After a few minutes of continued reassurance, she agreed to go back to bed and I told her good night.

"Sweet dreams, honey," she said before the line went dead.

To be continued . . .

Undercover Agent - Episode Ten

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Karla found Rosa at the firepit adding wild mushrooms to a soup pot resting on a bed of glowing coals. Karla set two sacks of vegetables on the ground. "Here's some stuff for the larder from vendors at the farmers' market."

Rosa glanced at the bags. "Thanks. I'll use them for a stew tomorrow. Maybe someone'll bring in some meat."

"I'll see what I can do. I'm gonna be on the streets in the morning."

"Beef, if you can manage it. Oh, yeah. Baku was looking for you a while ago."

"Is he still around?"

"He said he was goin' to the river. I don't think he's come back."

*          *          *

 Karla found Baku sitting in his regular spot on a steep bank overlooking the slow-flowing Willamette. "Rosa said you were looking for me. What's up?"

"Zakim wants to see you."

"How am I supposed to get there? It's on the other side of town."

"Jamal's parked on Lombard—at that strip mall where the laundromat is."

"I'll go after Rosa's soup's ready. I gotta eat something."

"He said as soon as you can get there."

"Did he say why?"

"He don't tell me nothin'. Not like he does you."

"Are you coming with me?"

"He didn't tell me to, so I guess not."

*          *          *

 Twenty minutes later Karla approached Jamal's van. Two men got out —Jamal on the driver's side, Zakim's bodyguard, Benny, on the passenger side. She didn't like seeing Benny and knew it wasn't a good sign. Before she could get away by ducking behind the adult video shop next to the laundromat, Benny yelled, "Don't make me chase you. Get over here."

"Karla limped to where Benny stood waiting. "Must be important if Zakim sent you to fetch a cripple lady like me when Jamal could have done it on his own."

Benny ignored her comment and opened the side door. "Get in."

Karla tossed in her walking stick and scrambled after it. She noticed that the inside handle had been removed, same for the rear door.

Since there were no back seats, she sat on the floor with her back against the driver-side wall. After they were under way, she scooted close to Jamal's seat. "Jamal. What's going on?"

Benny spun around. "Shut up. Get back there," nodding toward the back of the space.

Jamal glanced at her in the rear view mirror and their eyes locked for a second, but he said nothing.

*          *          *

 A few moments after the van pulled into the backlot and up to the loading dock behind Zakim's warehouse, the side door flew open and Benny said, "Get out," then moved back from the door. After Karla got out, Benny grabbed at her arm. Karla jerked away and stepped back a pace. Benny raised his hand to hit her, but Jamal jumped in front of him. "No need for that. She won't be no trouble."

Benny started to say something but didn’t when he saw the steel in Jamal's eyes, a look he'd not seen before. He also saw how Jamal stood with one foot forward, his shoulders turned at a slight angle, and his hands held in loose fists at chest-level. He was as tall as Jamal, but thirty pounds lighter and twenty years older. "Back off, Brother. No problem." He turned to Karla. "I'm gonna take you to Zakim."

Karla followed Benny up to the dock, her walking stick clanging on the metal steps. They went through an entrance next to a closed overhead cargo door and down a long hall, past two doors, then stopped before one painted red. Benny knocked four times and a second later a buzzer went off. He turned the handle and pushed the door open to reveal an office with a large desk, some filing cabinets, and a single chair in front of the desk. Zakim sat behind it like a king on his throne.

Following Benny's command, Karla sat in the chair. After Benny left the room, in a stone-cold voice Zakim said, "I know it was you who set us up. What else have you told them?"

If Karla was scared, she didn't show it. "It wasn't me. I'm on your side, remember?"

"Cut the crap. One way or the other, you're gonna tell me everything. Make it easy on yourself."

Karla knew from his controlled calm and unwavering gaze that he was convinced he was right and would be unrelenting in learning the truth. "Why do you think it was me?"

"Gretchen's been keeping track of what you been up to. She saw you put something under that barrel where you leave messages—the night of the delivery. Before she could get it, a man did. She followed him to his cop car. That's why I know it was you."

"I left a message there, like I always do. If I didn't, they'd suspect something was wrong. But I didn't tell them about the girls being transferred that night."

"Bullshit. Jack found a locator chip in the weeds by the trailer today. You must a tossed it away when you went in to get whatever it was you left behind.

"I didn't—"

Zakim didn't let her finish. "Benny!" he yelled, then buzzed the door. When Benny came in, Zakim said, "Take this bitch outta here and get the truth out of her."

Before Karla could say anything, Benny grabbed her by the hair and jerked her out of the chair. "Let's go You don't wanna be late for our appointment." She clutched her walking stick as he marched her through the doorway into the hall. When Benny opened the last of several more doors and shoved her into the room, he was surprised to see Jamal. "Wadda you doin' in here?"

Jamal took a step toward Benny. "Let her go. She's coming with me."

Benny pushed Karla aside and took a six-inch switchblade from his pocket and clicked it open. "You stupid son of a bitch. Get the hell out of here. This ain't none of your business."

Jamal ignored the knife and moved to where Karla stood near the door. "I'm leaving all right . . . and so is she."

Holding the knife in front of him, Benny stepped toward Jamal. Anticipating what was coming, Jamal threw a punch at Benny. Benny ducked, blocked Jamal's next swing, then plunged the knife into Jamal's belly. He sliced the blade sideways a couple of times before pulling it out. Jamal grunted and staggered backwards, then dropped to the floor. When Benny turned toward Karla, he doubled over when Karla, holding her walking stick like a shovel, rammed it into his groin. Excruciating pain shot through his body like an electric shock, and just as paralyzing. Before he could recover, she smashed the cane on top of his head. Then, holding it like a baseball bat, she delivered a cracking blow to the side of his skull, landing it above his ear and opening a long gash. He collapsed onto his side and stayed down, not moving, or breathing.

She checked Jamal's pulse, gently closed his eyes, then snatched his phone from his coat pocket. Wanting to get away from the bodies, she stepped into the hall and pulled the door shut behind her. She knew she had to call Tabor, but without Zakim hearing. She opened one of the other doors and entered a long room. The first thing she saw was a bench with half a dozen automatic rifles on it. Looking around, she saw wooden crates stacked along a wall. Then she noticed a bunch of pistols on another bench, and more wooden crates underneath. She knew at once that this is what the feds needed to take down Zakimsolid evidence of gun trafficking

*        *        *

Agent James was waiting for his burger and shake at Burgerville when his phone buzzed. He answered at once when he saw Tabor's number in the caller ID window.

"Karla's in trouble. She's at Zakim's. We gotta go in."

"Slow down. What's going on?"

"She just called. One of Zakim's guys was gonna rough her up, but another guy got himself killed when he tried to intervene. Then Karla killed the one who killed him—with her cane like she did the mafia guy. Then she found a room full of guns. Zakim doesn't know any of this. She thinks he's still in his office.

"How many others are there?"

"She hasn't seen anybody else, but she didn't know for sure."

"I'll call in a SWAT team. I'll meet you there as soon as I can . . . down the block . . . where that welding shop is. I'm on my way. Cancel that order," he yelled at the cashier as he ran out the door.

*        *        *

 After Karla ended the call to Tabor, she looked around the room she was in and noticed another door in the far corner. Hoping it might lead to a way out of the building and escape without having to pass Zakim's office, she opened it cautiously and peered into the dark interior. She found a wall switch and turned on the overhead light. She was stunned by what she saw—bundles of cash stacked on shelves lining two of the walls. There were packets of twenties, fifties, and hundreds, banded in what she estimated to be at least fifty bills in each, maybe more. There was no other door and no windows.

She hesitated for a few seconds, then grabbed a duffel bag off a nearby table and started stuffing bricks of the bills into it. She noticed that $10,000 was written on the band around the ones with hundreds. She knew she wouldn't be able to take all of it but was determined to get as much as she could. When the bag was full, mostly with hundreds, but also some fifties and twenties, she returned to the gun room and cracked open the door enough to peek into the hall. There was no one there, and she heard no sounds. With her cane in one hand and the heavy bag in the other, she headed toward the door to the loading dock. She struggled with the weight and concentrated on being as quiet as possible.

When she got to where Zakim's office was, the door was ajar. She stopped, afraid of being seen as she passed by. She heard him talking, but with short pauses, obviously on the phone. He sounded excited.

"How many are there?" A few seconds later, apparently on a different call she heard Zakim say, "Jack! Seymore just told me a bunch of feds are by the welding shop. Yeah, like they're waiting for something—or somebody. I think we're gonna get raided. We gotta get outta here. Now! Pack up as much money as you can. Get Benny, shoot the woman. I'll meet you two out back in a couple of minutes."

Karla heard noises from Zakim's office, like a laptop being slammed shut, and then papers, or files, being thrown into a bag or case of some kind. Then a chair scraping the floor and footsteps approaching the door. She looked around and saw another door a few feet behind her. She stepped back, set the satchel down, opened the door, grabbed the money, and got into the room just as Zakim came out of his. She didn't have time to close the door all the way, but in his haste Zakim didn't notice.

Karla saw at once that she was in a small bathroom, and that she still had her cane and the duffle bag. She heard Zakim's footsteps receding down the hall toward the loading dock. A moment later, she heard another set of footsteps racing along the hall, possibly toward the room with the money. Must be Jack, she thought. But at that point, she didn't care, she just wanted to get away—before Agent James and his guys and Captain Tabor got there. Let them pick up the pieces—the guns, the money stacked on those shelves, whatever was stashed in the other rooms. Let them catch Zakim, and Jack, sort out the two bodies, Benny and Jamal, they'd deal with all of it without her. She just wanted to get away—with her bag of money, money she'd earned—fair and square.

She looked around the room and immediately saw it—a window covered by a draw-down shade. She discovered that it looked out on a narrow, fenced-in side yard containing scattered debris and trash barrels. When she unlatched and tried to open the window, it gave enough to get her cane under it and pry it up high enough to crawl out. She punched her cane through the screen, tossed out the bag and walking stick, then squeezed through head-first, plopping onto the wet ground without hurting herself. There was no one in sight, although she heard heavy boot steps and men barking orders from around the far corner. Then she heard Zakim yell something, then a barrage of gunshots, more orders being barked, and then silence.

The fence was too high to climb, especially with the heavy bag. If she was going to get away with the money, she would have to get past the loading dock. She edged along the building wall, listening for sounds of the men—it was still quiet. They must be inside, she thought, and peeked around the corner. There was no one there, just several SUVs, two police cars, and the SWAT team minibus. She didn't see anyone near the vehicles or the gate. This was her chance—she stepped around the corner and headed toward the street.

"Stop! Put down the bag and the stick. Get on the ground."

She glanced to where the voice came from and saw a man on the loading dock pointing an automatic rifle at her. Yellow letters across his Kevlar vest said FBI.

"On the ground," he yelled again.

Karla dropped the bag and started to kneel down, but suddenly froze in place when Captain Tabor came out of the door and saw what was happening.

 "She's one of ours," Tabor yelled at the FBI guy.

The FBI guy gave Tabor a long look, then lowered his gun and said, "Who is she?"

"She's FBI, undercover. I gotta get her outta here so she won't be identified."

The SWAT guy stared at Tabor for a moment, then lowered his rifle and said, "All right."

Tabor scrambled down the steps and told Karla to come with him. She picked up the bag and followed him past two bloody bodies lying near Jack's SUV. When she glanced at them, she saw it was Zakim and Jack.

A few seconds later they were at Tabor's car. "What's in the bag?" he asked after she put it on the back seat.

"Personal stuff." She got into the front seat and didn't say anything else until Tabor pulled out of the lot, made a couple of turns, and headed north toward the freeway.

"Personal stuff? Like what?" he asked.

"You know—clothes . . . and other stuff. Nothing you'd be interested in."

"You sure?"

Karla looked at him, and he glanced at her, their eyes making direct contact. "Sure as sure can be," she said, then, suppressing a smile, turned away. "Where are we going?".

"FBI headquarters. Marx wants to debrief you, get your statement."

"Now? Can't she do it later? Like tomorrow?"

"What's wrong with now? You got something you gotta do?"

Before Karla could answer, Tabor's phone buzzed. "Yeah?" he answered. He glanced at Karla while listening to whomever it was that called. Then, "I'm with her now. On our way to see Marx for a debriefing. We'll be there in about half an hour." He ended the call, then said, "That was James. He's gonna be at Zakim's warehouse for a while. They found lot s of stuff to occupy them. Bodies, money, guns, dope, computers, and files. A real treasure."

Karla was quiet for a while, then said, "Before we see Marx, I need to stop by a bank in Hollywood. The one across the street from the furniture store."

"Why?" Tabor asked.

"I want to leave this stuff with a friend who works there. I don't want to take it to the camp. Stuff gets stolen there sometimes."

Tabor shook his head, then said, "A bank won't take that much . . .  personal stuff . . . they have to report anything over $10,000 to the government. Would you want that?"

Karla didn't say anything for a while, then, "Okay. Then I need a storage locker."

"Are you sure you want to do this? What about me? You're putting me in a tough position."

Without hesitation, Karla said, "Yes, I'm sure. I earned it. It won't be missed, anyway. As far as you and being in a tough position, you don't have any idea what's in that bag. And I'm not gonna tell you, either. As far as you know, it clothing I had at Zakim's for when I had to change into something more fitting to the occasion."

"Karla—"

"I told you . . . I'm sure. Sure as sure can be. So drop it."

Tabor drove on in silence for a while, maneuvering through the building afternoon traffic. Finally, he glanced at Karla and said, "All right. I don't like it, but we'll do it your way. There's a self-storage place on Northeast Halsey, not that much out of our way."

"Thanks."

They continued on, neither one of them saying anything. Fifteen minutes later Tabor pulled into a fenced-in parking lot of a self-storage complex and Karla went into the business office, alone. She took the duffel bag with her.

Twenty minutes later they were back on their way to FBI headquarters. Karla was the first to break their uncomfortable silence. "You wanna get something to eat after this thing with Marx is done?'

"Thanks for asking, but I need to get home. Tonight's my wife's book club and I gotta baby sit."

"You have a baby?"

"Two teen-age daughters. I guess I'm old fashion, but I'd rather not leave them alone."

"No problem. I wouldn't mind getting back to the camp, anyway. Rosie's cooking's as good as most restaurants. I want to see about Baku, too. See if he's been arrested. You can drop me off at that wine shop near the Max station in Hollywood. I'm gonna treat my fellow campers to some high-end wine for a change. I've always wondered what the good stuff tastes like."

Tabor gave Karla a sly look and said, "Well. from now on you'll be able to drink all the expensive wine you want with that stash of so-called personal stuff. I suppose you'll be leaving the street life too, right?"

Karla didn't answer for a while, just stared out the passenger window at the congestion of cars and trucks and at the neighborhoods they were then passing by. Finally, she said, "It depends on what Chief Marx has to say."

"What Marx has to say? What do you mean?"

"Maybe she'll want me to stay on. After all, you can't deny I helped bring down a crook you hotshot weren't able to get by yourselves. There's gotta be more crooks out there she'd like to bring down, don't you think? If I'm gonna be an undercover agent whose supposed to be a discarded, harmless homeless woman lost in the shadows of anonymity, then I'd better be living that life, right?"

"You mean you'd stay on with the FBI? You'd risk your life again? You were nearly killed by those bastards. Next time you might not be so lucky."

"I don't need luck when you've got my back. You were in my corner this time, you'd be there again, wouldn't you?"

"Karla! You're talking crazy. You're not trained for this kind of work. This thing with Zakim was a fluke. Next time could be a lot worse—like getting killed."

"That is a good point, Tabor. Maybe I' can convince Marx to get me some training. It would be nice to know how to defend myself with something besides my walking stick. Although you'll have to admit, I haven't done too bad with that as my only weapon, have I?"

"Karla! God damn it. I'm serious. This is a crazy idea."

"I'm serious, too. And it's not a crazy idea. I did something worthwhile for the first time in my life, and I'm proud of what I did. And another thing. I like living the way I do. Few responsibilities to weigh me down, friends who accept me as I am, and a cozy tent and warm sleeping bag. So, get off your high horse and let me be who I am. Who I wanna go on being. Okay?"

Tabor started to say something, but then realized they'd arrived at the FBI complex security booth.

"Tabor and Hammer to see Marx," he said to the guard.

"She's expecting you, Captain Tabor. You can park over there," the guard said, pointing toward a visitors' spot near the main entrance.

Five minutes later they were ushered into Marx's office rather than into the conference room they had been in during the previous visit.

Marx stood and walked around her desk to meet Karla and Tabor. "Miss Hammer. It's nice to see you again. We have a lot to talk about. Hello, Captain Tabor."

"I was thinking the same thing," Karla said as she shook Marx's outstretched hand.

Marx pointed at the couch. "Please, make yourselves comfortable. Would you like anything to drink?"

Tabor started to say something, but Karla jumped in. "No thanks. I don't have much time right now, so let's just get down to business."

Marx arched her eyebrows, obviously taken aback by Karla's abruptness. "I suppose you're referring to the twenty-five thousand dollar payment we owe you."

"That's part of it."

"Part of it? What's the other part?"

"A job. And some training. That's the other part of it. The part we need to talk about,"

The End

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