Disappointment showed in the brown eyes of the twelve-year-old.

Rana glanced back at the commissioner. He was watching her, but clearly didn’t recognise Vandita. The girl had traded her red dress for a torn brown smock, was barefoot, and wore her hair long and tangled. In just two weeks Rana had watched Vandita turn from an unhappy little rich girl into a happy, confident child revered by the children she helped to look after.

“Ah-cha. We can talk for two minutes, but no more. They’re looking for you. Your picture’s all over.”

Vandita laughed. “I’ve seen it. They’ll never find me.”

“How’s work?” Vandita and another girl cleaned cars and bicycles for ten rupees a time. Rana was trying to get them to spend a little of their earnings on school classes set up by private foundations around the city.

“Lieutenant!” Singh called impatiently in English. “When you can spare the time…”

“Run!” Rana said. “I’ll see you tomorrow or the next day. Be careful.” She watched Vandita turn and squirm through the crowd surging across the bridge.

Rana returned to the car. Singh was examining the mud on his boots, and when he looked up his gaze suggested that Rana was responsible. “Very well… I have seen enough here. Do you have your com-board, Lieutenant?”

Rana slipped it from her belt. “I am due to visit the City Children’s home at six to give a talk on road safety, and at seven—”

“Ah-cha, enough. Give the board to Khosla—he will be taking over now.”

“Why? I mean—”

“Don’t argue, Lieutenant.” Singh turned and spoke to the driver. “Back to headquarters. Then take Private Khosla to the City Children’s home.”

This time Singh appropriated the front seat for himself. Rana sat in the back and passed her board to Khosla without meeting his glance, wondering what all this was about. Was she being relieved of duty for good, or just for this shift? She wondered if word had got back to Singh about Vandita and the other rich kids she’d helped.

She watched the city teem by as the car carried them towards the police headquarters. So this was why Singh had come out with her, along with Khosla, to strip her of her post and charge her with dereliction of duty…

Ten minutes later she climbed out and hurried after Singh as he crossed the pavement and entered the crumbling Victorian building. The interior was as modern and comfortable as the exterior was ancient. Rana sometimes felt guilty that she worked in such luxury, while outside so many citizens lived in squalor.

She shared the clanking elevator with the commissioner in silence, alighted on the tenth floor and followed him along the corridor to his office, as cowed as a beaten puppy. She wondered where her insubordinate spirit had vanished to now, when she needed it most.

“Take a seat.” Singh indicated an uncomfortable-looking upright chair and seated himself like a maharaja, pulling up his padded swivel chair so that his swelling belly butted the edge of the desk.

Rana sat down, her stomach churning.

Singh scrolled through something on his computer screen, the blue reflection giving him the colouration of an overweight Krishna. He tapped his lips with a plump forefinger, clearly delighting in keeping Rana in suspense.

“I’ve been going through your records of late,” he said at last. He left it there.

Rana merely nodded. She felt cold sweat trickling over her ribs.

“You joined the academy at the age of fifteen.”

A silence followed. He tapped his lips judiciously.

“You had no formal education, but you passed the entrance exams with flying colours.”

She closed her eyes briefly, feeling sick. Singh had found out about her past. He was not here to reprimand her about her most recent conduct, but to accuse her of falsification of records, of lying to gain admittance to the academy.

And she knew the penalty for that sin was automatic expulsion.

“Very interesting… You came in off the streets, applied for a place on the examination rota and gained a pass mark of ninety-five per cent, one of the highest passes for the past ten years.” He paused again to regard the screen.

Rana wished she was out on patrol, talking to the kids, helping them make the best of a corrupt, uncaring world.

“Your achievement was noted by the then commissioner, and he kept tabs on your files and records.”

So this was it. Now he would come out with the evidence against her.

“He commended you to me when he retired. He had you marked out for great things. I took his advice and followed your career. I must admit that I have been quietly impressed over the years.”

It was all the worse because she knew what he was doing: building her up for the fall. Praising her, cataloguing her achievements, only to hit her with the fact of her duplicity.

“Your work with the street-kids is truly impressive. The instituting of work schemes and co-operatives, self- education and health programmes.” He shook his head. “Exceptional.” Then he pierced her with his gaze. “What have you got to say for yourself?”

She opened her mouth to speak. At last the words came. “I… I was only doing my duty, sir. I volunteered for the position at Child Welfare, to work with the underprivileged, and saw that the scheme as it stood was lacking—” She stopped herself. It was no good trying to justify what she had done if Singh intended to accuse her of dereliction of duty.

He was nodding. “As I said, I’ve been watching your progress for some years, and in my opinion the time has arrived for me to act on my predecessor’s recommendations. You are wasted working with the street-kids. Your talents for organisation and problem-solving can be used to greater effect in a different department.”

He went on, but Rana hardly heard a word. She had expected the worst, and he was offering her promotion, a move away from her work with the street-kids—and the idea filled her with horror.

“…so as of now, Lieutenant, you are officially a part of the homicide team working under Investigating Officer Vishwanath.”

He beamed at her, slivers of gold glinting between his big paan-stained teeth.

“Well, do you have a tongue in your head, Lieutenant?”

“I…” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I… I can’t accept. I don’t want to work at Homicide. My place is with the children. I think that my skills can be utilised to greater effect at a grass-roots level with those who find themselves at the bottom of society…” She realised that she was rattling off the line she used when high-caste acquaintances scoffed at her work with the kids.

Singh was having none of it. “My dear Rana, I run a police force here, the biggest law enforcement agency in India, not some welfare scheme for Dullits, beggars and pick-pockets.”

“I like working with children, sir. I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.”

“Your skills are needed elsewhere, Lieutenant.”

“Are you saying that if I were less skilled at my job, then I would still be able to work with the kids?” The thought appalled her.

“I am saying, Lieutenant, that the department’s work with the homeless children of Calcutta is low- priority.”

“But it’s necessary work, sir! Much of what I’ve done has given these kids jobs and security, kept them from prostitution and thieving.”

“Lieutenant, your work will be carried on. I am not eradicating the post you held.”

“Who?” Rana asked. She stared at him. “You can’t mean Khosla? I thought he was only taking over temporarily?”

“He’s a young, intelligent and ambitious officer.”

“Ambitious for promotion, maybe,” she said. “But he doesn’t know the first thing about the kids. You heard him today. He’s ignorant and dangerous. He has not the slightest sympathy with them.”

“Then perhaps, Lieutenant, a year or two in the post will educate and enlighten him.”

They stared at each other for what seemed like long minutes, opponents who would not concede defeat and back down.

“What if I refuse the promotion?” Rana asked at last.

“Then I will be forced, with great reluctance, to ask for your resignation.”

Вы читаете Penumbra
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату