“Mr. Venkat Reddy? Any passenger here named Mr. Venkat Reddy?” the airline staff came to boarding gate B1 and screamed. No one responded.
Neither at B2. Nor at A2 or A1.
“Mr. Venkat Reddy? Are you here, Mr. Venkat Reddy?” thirty minutes later, the voice boomed again. Same airline, different staff. No one stirred. Anywhere.
“Hello?! Is that Mr. Shailesh?” the voice had an urgency that Shailesh could not ignore. “Yes, this is Shailesh.” He replied.
“Do you know where Venkat is?” the voice asked.
“Errm.. in office, I guess? Who’s this please?”
“I am Venkat’s wife. Took your number from the office board after great difficulty. Venkat is not in office. He has not called me from Kolkata even. The hotel he was supposed to check into has no information about him. They say it was a no show.”
“Sorry, sorry, please come again and try and speak a little slower. What is Venkat doing in Kolkata? And, what is your name?”
“Sorry, my name is Latha. Venkat was supposed to be in Kolkata this week for work, no? He left for the airport, and since it was a late-night flight, I told him to message me after checking into the hotel. But I woke up in the morning, and there was no message.
That’s when I got concerned. His phone is coming switched off. His whatsapp last seen is at 8 30 pm last night, when he might have reached the airport.”
Shailesh was nonplussed, but he thought fast on his feet. “Latha, please listen to me carefully. Do you have family with you? Is there anyone who can come with you to the office? Please make sure you don’t come alone. Do bring a family member with you, preferably a lady.”
“Why are you saying like this? Is something not OK with my Venkat?” Latha’s voice faltered.
“No Latha. This is standard operating protocol. We cannot interact with female family members without the presence of at least one other lady, preferably from their own family. This is our company’s rule.” Shailesh was telling a white lie, but in this case, it was necessary.
“Ok, I will be right over. Be there in 15.” If she was dejected, she was not showing it. Yet.
25 minutes later, Shailesh, his Executive Assistant, Navita, Latha, and her friend, Vandita, were seated in a cosy conference room. Navita had arranged breakfast for everyone, and there was tea and coffee.
“Latha, please tell us from the beginning. What did Venkat tell you about the travel?”
“He said that he needs to be in Kolkata till Friday this week, and will leave on Sunday night. He sent me the tickets and hotel stay confirmation email as usual. We always share travel documents with each other, just in case…
He left home at about 8, to reach the airport by 8:30 or so. Since I am an early sleeper, I told him to msg me after checking into his hotel in Kolkata. This morning, there was no message. I thought he might have forgotten, so I called him. The phone was switched off. He is in sales, he never switches off his phone. That’s when I knew there was a problem. I called the hotel and they confirmed that there was a reservation, but he never showed up. I think, that we should best involve the police.” Latha completed.
“Yes,” Shailesh agreed readily, “The police will have to be involved within the next hour or so. I want you to meet with someone from our security team. I have specially requested them to brief you on police procedures and your rights as a complainant. You should know a few things. It will be helpful. Do you have a lawyer?”
“Shailesh, you are not understanding. My first priority is finding Venkat. I am afraid that something might have happened to him. I think you should call up your Kolkata office and ask whoever he was supposed to meet. You usually send a car to meet your officers at the airport, no? Shouldn’t that be the starting point?”
“Latha, I am sorry that I have to break this to you. Venkat was not going anywhere for an official visit. He was supposed to be in office. So, if he has sent you those tickets from his office id, with office id hotel reservations, that itself is an intent to… well, mis inform. I don’t think he is in any danger at all. There are certain other things that you don’t need to know right now, but I will take the necessary approvals and try and share them with you by evening. Please meet the person in our security team. I am asking him to do this as a personal favour. After meeting him, you must go to the police station with Vandita and file a missing persons report. I can assure you, we are with you every step of the way. You have my number, call me anytime.”
Navita sat through the briefing by the security team member. Afterwards, she went to Shailesh’s cabin.
“When are you going to tell her about Afreen, boss?” she asked quietly.
“Is Afreen in office?”
“You know she is. That is the first thing we both checked. Also, she is appearing pretty perturbed, and she has asked me twice about Venkat. So, my guess is that she has no clue where Venkat is, either.”
“You didn’t answer her?”
“You know I cannot share the calendar of my bosses, boss.” Navita smiled.
Navita assisted Shailesh, Venkat, and Gautam – three department heads.
Venkat reported to Shailesh but he handled the largest region – West. So, in terms of power, he was not far behind Shailesh.
Latha came home by about 5 pm. Dejected and sore, she still kept dialing Venkat’s number. She tried accessing his google id to check his current location. The police, after knowing that her husband had sent her a bogus travel plan, had explained to her, nicely and gently, that her husband had vanished of his own free will, and she should try to get a lawyer and understand her rights and secure whatever possessions she could. It was a sad occurrence, but not an infrequent one. Husbands ran away all the time, as did wives.
Vandita, her friend, was with her. She prepared dinner, ensured that they both ate, and then stayed back with her. To her husband, who asked how long she was planning on staying, she said, simply, “As long as it takes.”
If it was possible, the next morning was even harder.
Shailesh and the legal head of the company, Gautam, came by to meet her.
“How are you feeling now, Latha?” Shailesh enquired gently.
“I am not better, but thank you for asking.”
“We are following up with the police. We have some information from there, and some that we want to share with you ourselves.”
“I think.. its not good news?”
Gautam shook his head, “I’m afraid you’re right. Its not. But the information from the police is positive. Venkat did check in, he did clear security. He simply did not board.”
“So, he was the airport, and then he just.. vanished? He was booked on a flight to Kolkata for sure, then?”
“And at the hotel, as you already know. You will be surprised to hear this, but we were not as shocked to know that he has vanished.”
“Why?” Latha could not believe her ears.
“Latha, over the last year, Venkat has pocketed about 30 crores of sales proceeds that should have come to the company’s accounts but somehow made it to third party accounts that do not belong to the company. In short, officially, he was under investigation for embezzling 30 crores, but unofficially, we all knew he had done it. We were just trying to get the money back. The focus of the investigation was recovery, not prosecution.”
“Venkat… did.. this? But.. why?”
“When did he last take you on a holiday? And where?” Shailesh asked.
“To our temple town, with his parents. Last July.” Latha answered, with some difficulty. Venkat was not a spendthrift kind of guy when it came to family.
“The Ba^&*d.” Shailesh muttered under his breath.
“Latha, you have only been married two years, I have known him longer. So, let me just say it out flat – Venkat was fond of the good lifestyle. He often fudged bills and took more money than he spent on company travels. But he was so good at his work that we simply looked the other way. He appeared to be this sincere, sweet guy, and he netted customers like honey nets bees.”
“So, you think he was a crook?”
“I KNOW he was a crook. It was only a matter of time. If he had refused to return the money, we would have filed criminal charges against him and then he would have had to see the inside walls of a prison.” This was Gautam.
“But he is an only child. What will happen to his parents? He must have thought about that, surely?”
Gautam shook his head, “I think, you will find, Latha, that men like him rarely think about the impact on their family when they do these things.”
“What do you think has happened?” Latha asked, “Please be brutally honest with me.”
“I think that your Mr. has taken 30 crores and vanished into thin air, leaving you to deal with the mess and with his parents. You are the scapegoat, the fall guy, in this story.” Gautam was as blunt as Latha had requested him to be.
“You are helping me. Why?”
“Because not helping you would amount to helping a criminal. Helping you find him brings us closer to our 30 crores – an amount we cannot ignore.”
“You think you can use me to get to him.”
“No Latha, we are decent people. We will not use you as bait. Further, he would not have done this had he cared half a penny for you. We are just looking to work together.”
That stung, but Latha knew it was true. Had Venkat cared at all, he would not have done this.
“Sure. Let’s get him.” Latha said with a new resolve in her voice.
It was at this point that Vandita stepped in, “So, we know what has happened, and we know why it has happened. I have been wondering, HOW did he do it? How did he vanish into thin air from the Mysore airport?”
Shailesh looked at her sharply. Then he smiled. Vandita was going to be priceless.
A small taskforce was set up. Vandita, Latha, Shailesh, Gautam, and two other people – Amar, the head of Security, and Akash, the inspector assigned to the case. After the CEO of the company made a phone call and shared the 30 crores information, the police were quick to appoint an inspector level officer with 2 SIs to track down the ‘missing person.’
The headquarters was established at Latha’s house. Venkat’s parents had come to Mysore and then returned to the village. When they heard what had happened, their worry shifted from their son to themselves, and the exit from scene was prompt.
It is funny how long a week can feel at certain times.
“It was Sunday night. He had to be on one of the flights. Check if he booked two flights on that day, and flew on one of them. That would be easy enough to do.” Amar was the first to speak.
“We have put his phone on surveillance. His debit card, credit card, his devices, google id, everything is on surveillance. But so far, absolutely nothing.” The inspector said.
“See, a guy cannot vanish in thin air. He has to deposit this 30 crores somewhere. He had company accounts. Start by checking those. The customers made payments into those accounts. Find out who opened these accounts?”
“There were no wire transfers. All payment was taken in DD for these payouts. The DD could have been deposited anywhere in India. The company name was the same as this one.” The SI informed.
“That is not possible. The registrar of companies will not allow two companies to open with the same name. It has to be a similar name. And, if a company has been registered in India, we know where to look.” Gautam spoke up.
“Relax, Gautam. I am a CA. This is the easiest fraud in the world. The name of your company is personal. All he did was open a personal account with that name. And deposited money in it. Pay Ashish and Co is the same as pay Ashish Company. It could be absolutely anywhere in the country. Or it can be at many places.” Vandita interjected.
“So, where can he be now?” Latha asked, yet again.
“I think I can answer that one.” Amar spoke up. “Mr. Venkat Reddy, and his money, are safely outside this country, in a country with which India does not have an extradition treaty. His money is in a crypto account somewhere. And we are not likely to hear from him again. I am sorry to say that his fraud may not be limited to 30 crores either. In the coming days, we are likely to hear from more customers about non-delivery of their products. We will then find out the true extent of his fraud.
I have spent the entire last week reading up about these financial frauds and how individuals do them. This, in short, is the playbook.”
An expletive escaped Shailesh’s lips.
“So, there is no point in looking for him, then?” Latha asked.
“There is always a point, Latha. He might think he has gotten away with this. But we are here – six people with 6 different types of expertise. I think, we can get him and make him pay. All we need to do is hang in there and not give up.”
“We are going to be detectives now?” Amar asked.
Another 3 days, nothing.
The task force was meeting frequently, in the hope that someone will hit something.
Today, Akash was the first to talk, “We have checked his Adhar and identity documents against all international departures. No one has flown out with this Adhar or passport. So, if he has flown out, he has done that on forged documents.”
“Yes, but I don’t think he has changed his name. When changing identity, criminals tend to retain some part of that former identity rather subconsciously. Venkat is there in some part of the new name. Find out about international fliers who have no previous history of flying outside the country and have a passport issued within the last 2 years.” Shailesh contributed.
Akash made a note.
“Amar was right that day. The fraud is now at 40 crores and counting.” Shailesh volunteered.
Latha spoke, “I am sure he is sending some money to his parents somehow. He used to be the only breadwinner. If we find where that money is coming from, we can find him.”
Akash suggested something to Latha and she agreed to visit her in-laws the following morning. The village was only 4 hours outside Mysore.
Two weeks had now passed. The team was meeting again. This was going slowly and painfully.
“You were right Shailesh. Venkatgiri Naidu had a passport with the same address as Mr. Venkat Reddy. It was issued 8 months ago, and his international departure was to Greece. Cyprus is one of the world’s top centers for unnamed cash, and of course, crypto.”
“Hmm, so he is in Greece. Can we find his crypto wallet?” Vandita asked.
No one knew how.
“Never mind, I will take care of that.” She said cryptically.
“I have just come from meeting his parents. I told them that since he is a fugitive, his family will be roped in next. I need money to hire a lawyer. They tried to buy time saying they will arrange in a day or two, but I played the full emotional drama and mentioned urgency, and viola, came 2 lakhs to hire a good lawyer and keep them out of jail.” Latha made her contribution.
At the next meeting, Vandita held centerstage. “We have him!” His money is with Coinbase. He is transacting from Cyprus, as we guessed. His current wallet size is only about 2 million USD. This is less than half the money he has taken from you. Which means that the rest of the money can either be in benami Indian accounts or in bank accounts in Cyprus.
It was time for Akash to contribute – “No Indian accounts. We checked. His parents are getting transfers from an international account only. Small sums at a time. So, he is transacting from where he is. We don’t know how much he is spending. If his parents have 2 lakhs ready cash in their account, he is definitely not being thrifty.”
“How did you get your information, Vandita?” Gautam was curious.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to, sir. Just that we freelance PIs (private investigators) have access to white hat skills that most institutions don’t. Let’s leave it at that.” Vandita was simple and firm.
“So, in addition to being a CA, you are also a financial investigator?” Akash asked.
Vandita just smiled her assent.
Now, the team knew where he was, and where the money was. The next hurdle was to bring him to India without using the legal route. How could they make that happen?
Like a bunch of expert hunters, they laid a trap. Time was of the essence, because the next step for Venkat would be to call his parents over to join him. They had to place the bait before that. Once, he had to be made to come back before the parents could fly the coup.
In this plan, the central role had to be played by Latha. Akash accompanied her to the village, where they pretended to have come to arrest the father. Latha played her part brilliantly, falling to the ground just as the father had to be taken away in the police car. Thus, she was stationed in the house.
Almost a month passed with no movement. Latha remained with her in-laws. The police dutifully came every third day and had to return because the father-in-law was needed to take care of the women in the house. The in laws were grateful to Latha for falling ill when she did and took good care of her.
Not long after, Latha noticed some change in the demeanour of her in-laws. Her father-in-law was out of the house for 4-5 hours at a time. She knew that a movement was now imminent. Mysore airport was on alert again.
One Thursday night, as Mr. Naidu got off the flight, a police escort was waiting for him.
Venkat was sitting in the interrogation room, looking both angry and a little sullen. A lawyer had been summoned by and for him.
But the senior inspector in the room was an expert. He was from CBI, and Venkat was a small fry.
“Welcome back,” the inspector said gently. “Your lawyer will be here shortly, and then he can start emptying your pocket with his empty promises. Let me tell you how it will go. He will tell you that you are being sent to CBI remand and he will have you out on bail in 2-3 days at most. This circus will go on for 10 days, while he will charge you 2 lakhs per appearance for appearing in the CBI court on your behalf. After 10 days, your remand will pass to the police and the case to the court. From that point on, whether he charges 50k a hearing or 2 lakhs, is between you and him, but you, Mr. Venkat, are not going anywhere for the next 2 years. I promise you that, and once you cross the CBI remand home to the police remand home, you will find many examples to corroborate my theory. We know the law too, sir, and more importantly, we don’t get paid per hearing. So, contrary to what you might believe, lengthening your trial is in your lawyer’s interest and shortening it is in mine. Now, who do you want to listen to, to get out of this soup in record time?”
“What do you want?” Venkat hissed.
“A simple confession will do it. Anyway, you will spend many years in prison. The sooner you confess, the more lenient the judge will be. Take my word for it, or wait for about 100 court dates to figure this out. There will be no bail. Absconding is a non bailable section. Like I said, we know the law too.”
With that, Venkat crumbled, and the answers came quick and easy.
“How did you make it out of the airport?”
“I had a luggage loader’s uniform in my hand baggage. I left Mysore by car and boarded a flight from Port Blair.
The rest, of course, you know. The money was already stashed in an offshore account in Cyprus and in crypto."
“Was 50 crores worth it?” asked the inspector.
Venkat shrugged. “Like you said, I am small fry. It was big enough for me.”
“What were your future plans?”
This time, Venkat smiled before replying, “The usual. Stay in Cyprus, spend money, invest, live the good life, while you guys put Latha in jail, not willing to believe that she knew nothing about my scheme. I was not planning on calling my parents to join me, but your getting on my dad’s case forced my hand. I had to come back to sign the village land sale papers once. Then, none of us would have touched down in India ever again. They would have flown out with me.”
Outside, 6 people silently sat on a chai tapri, drinking tea. No one spoke, but there was a glint in each eye.