It was one of the nights when thrilled amateur astronomers would crane their necks, to gaze through their telescopes into the sky. And, once, one of the famous fireworks factories in all of Delhi, stood abandoned and desolate, in the blackness claimed by that new moon night. Ten years ago, an accidental fire there had claimed the lives of more than thirty workers, but had spared the construction from crumbling down to the earth. Now, years later, without doors and windows, the building stands in solitude, like an old man without teeth, forgotten by his sons, and left to fend for himself. The tragedy the dilapidated structure had suffered made it inglorious. With time it earned the bad reputation of being among the most cursed locations in the outskirts of Delhi. If one were to believe the rumors, then there had been reports of people disappearing from the site. This aroused curiosity among the community of self-proclaimed paranormal experts. A few daring ones visited the derelict factory with all their ghost-detecting gadgets only to be found missing the next day. These incidents contributed to the claims of this old building being haunted. As a result, the adrenaline junkies, the thrill seeking couples, the so called paranormal experts, unchecked this place from their list of places they were to visit.
But, this did not stop two men from pulling their vehicle in front of the abandoned factory. There was no doubt in them being bravehearted, but they weren’t intrepid enough to deal with the supernatural. In fact, these two were once part of the team who had contributed in spreading the hearsay of this ramshackled property being haunted. The director of the Research and Analysis Wing wanted them to do it. The man needed a secure place to conduct secret meetings among their own trusted members. And, for this they needed a place free from any sort of visitors. The old, abandoned factory was perfect.
The two men remained seated in silence, focusing on one of the first floor windows that appeared like a black, empty orbital socket in the darkness. A few moments later, a weak flickering flame appeared floating in that window, a cue for them that it was safe to enter the building. The men unbuckled their seat belts, shouldered their leather messenger bags, and climbed out of the car. They stepped through the broken metal fence to enter the factory’s compound and strode toward the left side of the building where an old, rusty staircase hugged the wall. It was the only entry point to the first floor of the building. The corroded metal stairs were just an illusion to give the impression that they weren’t safe enough to carry the weight of even a bag of bones. This kept the curious adventure seekers at bay even during the day time. Without any reliable source of entry into the rumored haunted structure, it was worthless visiting the place. Nobody would risk climbing a rickety pair of stairs and get badly injured by the fall it will cause. When in fact, it was an imposture of a broken and corroded staircase. It could hold the weight of more than twenty people at a time. The staircase was an engineering feat achieved by the engineers working under the RAW.
One of the men looked over his shoulder to make sure they were alone and not being followed before joining the other one jogging up the stairs. They strode across a dusty corridor and entered a room. Inside, they found the familiar person whom they were here to meet. And, he was accompanied by an unfamiliar woman. Even in the dull light of the candles, the old man’s persona didn’t dim and the lady’s face glowed.
“Right on time.” The director of RAW pushed back his chair and stood.
The woman stood alongside him.
“Weren’t we trained for it?” Aditya smiled, and extended his hand to greet him. “Good evening, Sir.”
The Director shook his hand and then extended his hand towards Aarav.
“Good evening, Sir.” Aarav shook his hand.
“This is Niyati, a new recruit.” The director introduced her to them. “Niyati, these two are among our best field officers.”
Niyati put her hands behind her back and nodded.
Both of them greeted her, placed their bags on the desk, and took their seats when gestured by the director to sit.
Niyati took the seat beside the director.
Both Aditya and Aarav were from the Special Group, which was the Special Force Unit of the Research and Analysis Wing. Before joining RAW, they carried out operations as elite soldiers of the Special Frontier Force. They worked in several operations defending the border against the People’s Liberation Army. And, later conducted many clandestine intelligence gathering operations along the Chinese and Tibetan borders. The experience they have gained and the way they had handled the operations was enough for the director to pull them into RAW.
“So, why are we here, Sir, when we could have met at the headquarters?” Aditya questioned.
“I don’t want to announce this mission officially until I’m sure about the authenticity of the intel I have received.”
“Are the Pakistanis again up to something?” Aarav leaned forward and placed his hands on the wooden desk.”
“Chinese.” The director corrected him.
“Chinese?” Aditya gave an unsure look.
The old man nodded. “And, they have included the Pakistanis in whatever they are planning.” He added.
“Sir, is the source of this info reliable?” Aarav asked.
The director gestured to Niyati to show them her laptop which she had already kept open.
She turned the screen towards them. It displayed a picture of a person whom they both instantly recognized.
“Ali Afzal?” Both of them exclaimed together.
“He is a well known and reputed Pakistani businessman. His countrymen respect him a lot. What about him, Sir?” Aarav enquired.
“As far as I remember, he hasn’t ever been involved in any terrorist activity.” Aditya said.
“And he doesn’t have any criminal record as well.” Aarav added.
The director began, “In the recent years RAW has shifted its primary focus from Pakistan to China. After the news of Pakistan’s plummeting economy doing the rounds, there are evidences of Chinese supplying ammunition to the Pakistani terrorist groups. Earlier, RAW had been successful in neutralizing a few of the threats.”
“So, how is he involved?” Aarav questioned gesturing toward the laptop’s screen.
“A few days back, I had been tipped off that Ali Afzal will be traveling to China in the coming week.”
“He is a businessman, he has a purpose. What’s so unusual about it?” Aditya pointed out.
“I have received an intel that he will be meeting a high official of the Chinese State Security Service.” The director replied.
Aarav raised an eyebrow. “Now that’s interesting.”
“Is the source reliable?” Aditya expressed his concern.
“I have been tipped off by the US intelligence. Why doubt it?” The director said.
“CIA?” Aditya asked.
In response the director nodded.
“The CIA tipped us off? Just like that?” Aarav said.
“I have a few acquaintances there. The NSA had intercepted some conversations. And, the CIA shared this info in exchange for some intel I shared with them.” Their boss replied.
“Why would Afzal meet someone in the Chinese military?” Aditya said massaging his forehead.
“That’s what we need to find out and so, I’m sending the three of you on this espionage mission, code named, ‘Operation Dragon’s Den’.”
“The three of us?” Aditya gave a look of surprise. “Does she really need to go with us?”
Nitya lifted an eyebrow. “Excuse me, is there a problem?”
“You have just joined, field missions are unpredictable and dangerous.” Aditya explained.
“Then you two have to enter China as a gay couple?” The director teased.
“Sir, I ...”
“I have no issues.” The old man cut Aditya off. “I can drop her from this mission.”
Aarav gave a quick glance to Aditya. “We are fine.”
“Yeah.” Aditya agreed. “Just that she doesn’t slow us down.”
“Trust me, you both won’t regret.” There was excitement in her voice.
“Okay, so now that we have agreed as a team, Nitya will brief you.” With that the director got up from his seat, reached into his jacket’s pocket, pulled out his cigarette case and walked out of the room.
Nitya turned the laptop’s screen towards herself, tapped a few keys then again turned it towards them. “This is where we are going to stay.”
“Seems like a holiday to me.” A wicked smile grew on Aarav’s face.
“Cedarwood!” Aditya read aloud. “That seems a luxurious place to stay.” He commented.
“That’s Beijing’s one of the most opulent hotels,” She revealed.
“Well, Ali Afzal is affluent, he can afford it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise.” Aarav said.
“From our allies in Beijing we have been informed someone local had reserved a room for him for the coming Wednesday.” She crossed her arms.
“So, despite him being so rich, someone else is going to pay the bills during his stay in Beijing?” Aditya widened his eyes.
“These Chinese are really up to something.”
“We’ll find out soon.” The director walked into the room and took his seat, the distinct, faint smell of tobacco lingered around him.
“What exactly are we going to do, Sir?” Aarav asked.
“Like I said, this is an espionage mission. You all just need to gather the necessary intel and return back home. Keep your profile low and you will not need to engage in any kind of direct action.”
“So, we are being sent unarmed?”
“You don’t need it.”
“Sir, espionage is illegal in every country, and this is China. If we get caught, we will be arrested by the local police.” Aditya expressed his concern.
“Don’t worry, the moment you step into Beijing, our allies there will cover you. They will make sure you three are safe until you leave.”
“Okay, so what’s the plan then?”
“You will have to plant a microphone to listen and record Afzal’s conversation and also you need to click the picture of him with whoever he is going to meet.”
“Yeah.” Nitya said.
“So we leave on Tuesday.”
“That doesn’t sound like a tough job.”
“I hope it’s not.” The director stood.
After a few more minutes of conversation, all the four left.
They had already been informed by their allies in Beijing which room number was booked for Afzal. And, for their operation to be successful they needed their rooms to have a common wall with that of their target. So, two rooms on either side of Afzal’s reserved room were booked for them.
They reached the hotel in the early morning as they needed to check-in a few hours before Afzal arrived. This would give them time to place the bugs and cameras. Aditya and Nitya checked in as a newly-wed couple in room number 1804 and Aarav checked into room number 1806 disguised as a solo traveler.
Aarav was tasked to record the covert conversation between Afzal and the man from the Secret Service. He glued a special type of sensitive contact microphone on the common wall between his and Afzal’s. The device was capable of detecting vibrations of conversations through concrete walls of up to twenty inches thick. Aarav wore the headphones to check the quality of recording. He smiled as he could clearly hear the cleaning staff. He was ready to record them.
In the other room, Aditya and Nitya were tasked to take covert photographs of their target’s meeting with the Chinese man. With the help of a battery operated mini drill machine he drilled a pinhole on the common wall that was too small to be noticed. Carefully, he installed a miniature camera and then gestured to Nitya to check the laptop.
She nodded and smiled when she got clear pictures of Afzal’s room where a cleaning staff was changing the bedsheets.
Afzal arrived at about one in the afternoon. He was accompanied by his bodyguard.
“Four hours have already passed, I wonder when will the Chinese arrive?” Nitya muttered.
Ever since Afzal had arrived, he didn’t call anyone. He didn’t even talk much to his bodyguard. They had their lunch and just watched tv.
Aditya grew suspicious. What if they canceled their meeting? What if Afzal would leave the hotel to meet him elsewhere. Hell, they won’t have time to plant any bugs or cameras on him. Although they were prepared for any situation, they needed little time and distraction to do the last minute preparation. He hoped that wouldn’t be the case.
It was around half past seven in the evening when the Chinese Secret Service person arrived. Nitya and Aditya resumed their positions in front of the laptop and Aarav wore his headphones and switched on the recorder.
But, within a minute they were surprised. This is not what they had expected. Although Aditya was right with their change of plans.
Aditya and Nitya had just seen the back of the person who had come to meet Afzal when his room’s light went off. Thankfully, the camera they had installed was infrared. They glued their eyes to the screen. The man sat opposite Afzal. They both recognized him.
“The leader of the Chinese Secret service, Hui Jun.” Aditya glanced at Nitya.
“But why did they switch off the light? I wonder what they are discussing?”
Aditya focused on the laptop screen. “I’m afraid we’ll not know.”
In the other room, Aarav pressed the headphones over his ear trying hard to hear. But, all he could hear was some sort of scribbling and occasional coughing. That’s when his mobile vibrated twice. It was a cue that Aditya needed him. He removed the headphones, wore his baseball cap, locked his room and walked towards Aditya’s room. On knocking thrice, the door opened. It was Nitya.
“What happened?” He said as he entered. “Either they aren’t talking or I might have installed a faulty microphone.”
“Former.” Aditya replied, his eyes still glued to the screen.
Aarav stood behind him. “What the…”
“Exactly, my reaction.” Aditya looked at him.
“They aren’t speaking at all. That’s why I wasn’t able to hear them talk.”
“The Secret Service man is smart. He didn’t want to take any chances.” Nitya crossed her arms as she stood beside Aarav.
“Who could have thought they would exchange notes sitting across each other instead of talking.” Aarav placed a hand over his forehead. “Now what?”
“Now, plan B.” Nitya smiled as both Aarav and Aditya exchanged confused looks. They weren’t informed earlier about any other plan.
Aarav went back to his room and waited for the signal. He retrieved his things from the suitcase and packed them into his messenger bag. He was going to leave the hotel soon, and since he wasn’t checking out he would have to leave his suitcase behind. He pulled the microphone from the wall and along with the headphones, stuffed all the setup into his bag.
After about forty five minutes his mobile vibrated thrice and he walked out of the room. Outside, he saw Aditya and Nitya waiting for him. They nodded at each other and then Aarav staggered towards Afzal's room and banged on the door.
“Hey, open the door, come out.” He slurred his words like he was drunk.
The bodyguard came out and while he scanned Aarav from head to toe, Aditya and Nitya approached him and before he could understand anything Nitya forcibly injected a needle on his neck. Within seconds he lost his consciousness and was about to fall when Aditya held him.
Nitya went in before to check on Afzal while Aarav helped Aditya drag the stout man in. They closed the door behind.
Thankfully, the businessman was in the bathroom and was ignorant about what had just happened. This gave them an opportunity to hide. While Nitya stood beside the bathroom door, Aarav and Aditya hid the man’s body under the bed and they themselves stayed there waiting for Nitya to do her job. By now both of them were impressed by her skills and were glad she was here. It made their job easy as they didn’t have to engage into any kind of direct action which could have jeopardized their mission.
A click sounded and the bathroom door opened. As soon as Afzal came out Nitya pounced upon him and jabbed a needle on his neck.
In a confused state Afzal staggered backwards when Aditya and Aarav held him from behind and made him sit on the lounge chair. He had been injected the same drug as his bodyguard but in a smaller quantity so that he loses his consciousness gradually and not immediately like his bodyguard who was given a higher dose.
“Well, the truth serum always works.” Nitya crossed her arms.
The three of them waited until the Pakistani was in a zone halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness. It was then when he would become chatty and disinhibited and would cooperate.
A few minutes later, the truth serum, sodium thiopental had worked its magic and Afzal was all set to spill whatever they would ask him.
Nitya handled the camera to record their interrogation.
Aditya sat across Afzal and began questioning. “Why are you here?”
“Huh?” Afzal questioned with his eyelids drooping.
Aditya repeated. “Why are you here? If you won’t answer, the drug is going to kill you as we won’t inject you with an antidote. Your bodyguard is already dead.” That was clearly a lie. The bodyguard would live and after the drug had worn off both will forget about this incident. They might best assume they were heavily drunk.
“I … I, I… was called to meet him… Head of the Ch… Chinese Secret Service?”
“Because th… they want me to se… send assassins to kill the D… Da… Dalai Lama.”
“What?” The trio exclaimed in unison as the wave of revelation shook them.
At best they had guessed Chinese were going to supply arms and ammunitions to the Pakistanis to carry out an act of terror but planning to assassinate the Dalai Lama was totally unexpected.
Aditya shook Afzal’s arms. “When?”
He didn’t reply but pointed towards the desk.
Aarav walked towards where the businessman was pointing his finger and found the notepad which he and the Chinese used for writing to communicate. He forced his fingers into a pair of surgical gloves and picked the notebook. “COP27.”
Nitya placed her hands on her hips. “It all makes sense.”
“What?” Aditya stood.
“The Chinese view Dalai Lama as a separatist and the Indian government’s any engagement with him or the Tibetans discomforts them.” She continued. “Recently, the Dalai Lama has been very vocal about the Chinese involvement in exploiting Tibet’s natural resources and the harm it’s causing to their environment.”
“But, why COP27?” Aarav questioned.
“Because, the Dalai Lama has been invited to the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to address the world and expose how China’s obsession of hundreds of dam buildings in Tibet is going to harm the countries dependent on water supply from the rivers of Tibet. India is going to suffer a lot if this madness isn’t stopped. China wants to control the Tibetan waters.”
“That’s scary.” Aditya raised his eyebrows.
By now, Afzal had lost his consciousness. The team took pictures of whatever they thought was important. Then they laid the unconscious bodyguard next to where Afzal was seated. They placed bottles of whiskey on the coffee table in front of them and sprinkled a little on them to make it look like they dozed off after consuming a lot of alcohol. Their job was done here. Mission ‘Dragon’s Den’ was accomplished. Now they needed to leave and meet their boss as soon as possible, because the COP27 was scheduled for next month and they just had a few days time to act.