The work — thanks to deadlines

Books

City of Tribes — a novel

Chapter One

Kip — December 1913

India

Two days before Christmas, spit-polished ranks of scarlet soldiers led a noisy procession from Lahore Gate through the choked streets and market stalls of the Red Fort toward the spanking new government district, a precisely chiselled grid imposed by Royal Engineers on the chaos of old Delhi. Enough of the sweltering stink and communal politics of Calcutta – the Raj was determined to celebrate its new capital with the thump of drums, syncopated boots, and loud, victorious brass.

Blue haze from countless dung fires rose and mingled with yellow dust to make breathing a chore at street level. Yet thousands resolutely stood their ground, determined to catch a glimpse of semi-regal greatness. From his symbolic castle, a double-seated silver throne polished to a gloss and strapped high on the back of a lumbering elephant adorned with emeralds and rubies, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, nodded and smiled imperceptibly, genuinely pleased with all that he surveyed—an undulating sea of brown faces in the chilly morning sun.

The Vicereine, Lady Hardinge, gloved and buttoned tight against filth and odours, her expression serene, clutched a yak-tail fly-whisk in one hand and waved daintily with the other in response to the cheering throng. Obviously not all of them hate us, she must have thought.

Concealed behind the front row of spectators, three nervous young men, Basanta Biswas, Amir Chand and Avadh Bihari, watched the ponderous approach of an English lord and his wife, determined to relieve these imperious whites of their dark burden once and for all. Draped in a sari, Biswas hunched his shoulders forward and bent his knees to make himself smaller. He pulled a headscarf across his scraggly beard. Cold sweat slicked his cheeks and ran in rivulets down his back. Chand and Bihari looked into the glistening eyes of their leader one last time for confirmation. Biswas took a deep breath and nodded.

From a balcony slightly above eye level Inspector Kip Henley, on special assignment from the Calcutta Police, swept the teeming mob with binoculars searching for a man called Rash Bose, a known anti-British conspirator from Bengal. If trouble followed the Raj to Delhi, Bose would be the likely mastermind. Nine special agents who had infiltrated the crowd stood ready at strategic locations waiting for a signal from the young inspector.

As the last rank of a Sikh regiment stepped smartly past where Biswas and his comrades huddled, Chand and Bihari shoved people aside, forcing a gap in the line. Biswas stepped forward. Kip spotted the sudden movement and quickly refocused his glass. He thought he recognized one of the faces—but it wasn’t Bose. It appeared to be a woman—or possibly a man dressed as a woman—who tossed a packet of home-made explosives upward into the Viceroy’s howdah.

In the noise and hubbub, the brass music and rhythmic pounding of so many boots and drums, the explosion itself was almost lost, a short, sharp crack followed by an ear-splitting shriek. Lord and Lady Hardinge crumpled like rag dolls. The mahout, their loyal elephant driver of many years, tumbled to the ground in a bloody heap. The big animal’s spine was ripped open and it crashed to the pavement. The crowd screamed and scattered.

Three would-be assassins darted through swirling chaos into a maze of market stalls before any of Kip’s agents could lay a hand on them. Women and children were trampled. Old men flattened themselves against the walls of cafes and shops. Kip vaulted over the balcony and joined the chase through upended carts, splattered vegetables, and people running in every direction, not sure who was chasing whom or why.

Kip could see one of the terrorists—the man dressed as a woman—stumbling over sacks of rice piled against a kerb just ahead. The young inspector tried a flying tackle but missed by inches. He grabbed a handful of cloth but the sari tore away. As both men tumbled to the pavement twenty or thirty frightened camels broke free of a temporary rope enclosure and ran right over top of them. Kip got stomped and kicked in the head. Before passing out he caught a glimpse of the bomb thrower scrambling to his feet and vanishing into the next alley.

***

Three days later, after a futile search, Kip returned to Calcutta where he justly feared reprimand or perhaps even suspension. At twenty-four, he had made inspector in record time and truth be told wasn’t entirely sure he’d earned it. Not that he felt inadequate in any way or lacked ambition, he was simply and uncomfortably aware that he’d been promoted over several more experienced men who would likely hold grudges.

Kip suspected politics might have played a part. His father had earned his stripes in the Black Watch and had died heroically at the hands of a seditionist. His great-uncle had been injured twice and decorated for valour during the Mutiny of 1857. That surely would have counted for something with the old boys.

On the other hand, being nearly as dark-skinned as his mother, it was also possible that race had played a role. The brass may have wanted to show the native boys that British rule was fair and square with opportunity for anyone of merit, regardless of complexion. Kip knew, however, that he would never be welcome at the club. They allowed him entry—an inspector’s rank did come with a few privileges—but there was a difference between tolerance and acceptance. Did he carry a chip on his shoulder? He preferred to think not.

Kip considered himself an Englishman in every way that mattered even though he had never set foot in the mother country. London was the new Rome in his estimation. He felt as enthusiastically British as any man with whiter skin. Half-caste or Anglo-Indian, for him it was where the heart lay that truly counted.

Kip’s father had been white, British-born and raised, with three generations of army blood in his veins. His mum was local, a Hindu woman of moderate standing. Their marriage had been based on love and respect. Dad never gave a fig what anyone thought. None of their damn business. And mum had always been accorded the greatest respect by everyone with a connection to the regiment. At least while Dad was still alive.

Kip’s loyalty to the Raj was especially intense now in these troubled times. Perhaps that was why he had opted for a police career instead of the army. First of all, he would be his own man in the police, not just a soldier’s son hanging on to his father’s coattails. He also assumed that he could be of greater service as a copper on the streets of Calcutta, the most vibrant and potentially explosive city in British India. In his view a coffee-coloured inspector of police proved the rightness of the whole grand idea.

Kip had been thrilled at the chance to prove himself. Excel in Calcutta and someday you might make the Met in London. Tall and solidly built like his father, he looked very sharp in parade dress; a smart young investigator at the top of his game. Or at least that was how it had seemed until this unfortunate business in Delhi.

Having botched the mission to capture Bose while the as-yet-unidentified team of terrorists managed to strike at the Viceroy and get away scot-free, he felt there was bound to be a reckoning. As officer in charge of the operation, Kip was sure he would take the fall. Nothing for it now but to face up and accept his due. Should he offer an explanation of the circumstances? Should he mention the camels? No, that would just sound weak.

Striding briskly across the square toward police headquarters, Kip weighed his options. Should he insist that he and his men had done their best, that a handful of officers had been spread too thinly amongst such a dense crowd to have had a reasonable chance of capturing the terrorists? That was accurate and dispassionate but, again, would be seen as a cowardly grasping. “`Tis a poor workman who blames his tools,” his dad always preached.

Arriving five minutes before the appointed time, Kip sprinted up the stairs, executed a proper right-angle turn and stepped smartly down the long polished hallway. He arrived at the DCI’s door, squared himself and took a deep breath before knocking. Two short taps.

“Enter,” shouted a familiar voice.

He grasped the mirrored brass knob, entered, whipped off his cap, tucked it under his left arm, came to attention with a click of his heels, and saluted. “Henley, reporting as ordered, sir!”

“At ease, Kip. Take a seat,” said Detective Chief Inspector Richard Wessington, sounding put upon. Not quite the reception Kip was expecting. Wessington looked a bit rumpled—to the extent a man could be rumpled in an immaculately tailored uniform. His greying hair and moustache precisely trimmed, he was polishing his already spotless spectacles. He was clearly distracted.

It was only now that Kip noticed the other man in the room, an older fellow with thinning silver hair and a thick, yellow-stained moustache. Although not in uniform he looked distinctly military and was no doubt of senior rank. Kip also noticed the visitor had appropriated Wessington’s well-worn leather chair where he sat with a thatch of papers and a map spread across the broad mahogany desk. Wessington had pulled up one of the small cane chairs meant for visitors whose business with the DCI should always be brief. Kip reached for the other visitor’s chair and had started to sit when Wessington cleared his throat and spoke again.

“Sorry, Kip – this is Carlaw from the intelligence unit in Delhi.” Kip stood again, swallowed, and waited. If high command had sent a man all the way down from Delhi to discipline a lowly inspector—what on earth must have happened? His stomach lurched. Had the Viceroy died overnight? Had the Ghadrite threat become unaccountably worse?

Carlaw did not rise nor did he offer to shake hands; he had settled in to his nest of documents. Wessington nodded and Kip sat again.

“Lord and Lady Hardinge have survived, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said Wessington. “But that’s not why you’ve been summoned.”

“How’s your Punjabi, Inspector?” asked Carlaw.

“Sir?”

“Punjabi. How well do you speak it?” Carlaw was impatient.

“Passably, I’d say.” Kip cleared his throat. “I’m better at Hindustani.”

“Of course, you would be. How passable is passable?”

“With the Punjabi? I can understand pretty much of what I hear, as long as the fellow’s not jabbering away too quickly.”

Carlaw glanced at Wessington who said nothing.

“He is your best man, is he?”

“He is indeed,” said Wessington, who seemed about to add something when Carlaw cut in, speaking directly to Kip.

“We may have another assignment for you, Inspector. Assuming you can gather yourself up after last week’s—shall we say, disappointing?—result.”

Kip kept his mouth shut and waited.

“We need a man in Canada, Kip,” Wessington explained. “Someone to infiltrate the Ghadrites and work with local authorities over there. Carlaw is running the operation. What we need to know is whether you’re up for the job. It’ll be a dodgy bit of business…”

Carlaw interrupted. “We have reason to believe the Ghadrites have formed an offshore cell in Vancouver. We think they’re gathering money and weapons for another attack. We need to know everything there is to know about these bastards. Who they are, what their timetable is—everything. Follow me?”

“Sir. Yes sir. But…”

“I’ve got a file for you.” He tapped a thin brown folder tied in red ribbon. “You’ll have to read and memorize the salient points because you cannot under any circumstances take it with you. I don’t want anyone beyond the three of us to know what your orders are. Do I make myself clear?”

“Sir. Yes sir!”

“Not even the Canadians,” added Carlaw, raising a tobacco-stained finger. “You’re to tell them only what I authorize and not a jot more. The Colonial Office in London will be offering your services as a translator and cultural liaison. The Canadians don’t need to know you’re a police detective. Or that you’ll be reporting their every move directly to me by cable.”

“Their moves—meaning the Ghadrites, sir? Or the Canadians?”

“Both.”

“As you might imagine, Kip, these are sensitive matters,” Wessington continued. “The Colonial Office has concerns about the Canadians. They have an agenda that runs counter to our own. It’s highly doubtful they would grasp the implications—for the rest of the Empire—if you catch my meaning.”

Kip did not catch it but decided to say nothing. If both men thought he was sharp enough to figure things out, then who was he to open his mouth and prove them wrong? For a fleeting moment he wondered whether Wessington was being kind, as a future father-in-law might be, or whether this apparent generosity could be a trap.

Lucinda had insisted on keeping their proposed marriage a secret for at least another fortnight to give themselves time to work out the best way to approach her father. Had she told him already? Kip’s mind raced.

“You’ll have to be bloody quick about getting in the picture, Inspector,” said Carlaw, “because should we decide to confirm you for this mission, you’ll have to leave, probably…” Carlaw glanced at Wessington, “…what, tomorrow?”

“Yes,” confirmed the DCI. “There’s a sailing, I believe, at midday.” He shuffled papers on his desk giving Kip a glimpse of his own skimpy personnel file buried under the mess. Wessington came up with a sheet of hand-scrawled notes. “Right-o, the P&O departs noon for Hong Kong, where you’re to catch the Empress of India,” he said, “a Canadian Pacific liner. Not exactly posh, I should imagine, but there you have it.”

“These bumpkins are part of the Empire, so technically CP is the All Red Route. It’ll have to do.” Carlaw wanted a quick decision.

Wessington looked directly at Kip for the first time. “We’ll have your documents ready by morning, should you—should we—all agree.” He looked back at Carlaw who stroked his yellowed moustache. The spymaster offered no hint of his thoughts.

“Might I ask the duration?”

Carlaw replied, “Whatever it takes. Six months? Could be longer, depending on what these chappies are planning and how much time it takes you to find out.”

“It’s largely down to you, Kip,” Wessington added. “We’ll have no way of knowing what these bastards are planning until you tell us.”

Kip again pondered the old man’s motives. Had Luce told him? If yes, how had he reacted? Was this his golden opportunity—a career maker—or a banishment? He was about to ask for time to think about it, then realized how indecisive that would sound.

“Perhaps you’d care to step out for a cigarette, Inspector?” suggested Carlaw.

Kip almost said, “Sir, I don’t smoke.” Instead he rose quickly from the cane chair, stomped his heel and snapped a salute. “Right, sir. Back in a moment.” He tucked one gleaming boot behind the other, did a proper about-face, and marched out smartly.

***

Now what? he asked himself, as he stopped on the landing and gazed blindly out the arched windows that overlooked the parade square. The arriving day shift had infested the building with squads of men coming and going, secretaries fetching trays of steamy tea, all of them talking and laughing at the tops of their voices. The walls echoed with fragments of conversation and the clomp of boots. Several of his mates greeted him in passing, too self-absorbed to notice that he only smiled and did not answer.

He so wanted to see Luce, but she was halfway across the cantonment at work on her ward by now. What, if anything, had she told her father? The one fact to be sure of was that if Richard Wessington seriously didn’t want his daughter wed to a man with brown skin and few prospects outside the police service, he could make life miserable whether Kip stayed in Calcutta or went to Canada. The race issue had come up only once before. Kip had raised the question and Luce had dismissed it instantly—a touch too vigorously—insisting that her dad had spent his entire career in India working with people of every race and creed. He had never once uttered an unkind word. Not that she had heard.

“Dad respects and admires you very much, Kip. Surely you must know that by now.”

“All well and good, Luce, but it’s one thing to behave decently toward the hired help—it’s something else entirely when your daughter wants to marry a wog.”

She had demanded to know how his own mother would react. She and her Hindu friends who chattered endlessly about the “obnoxious Brits.” They’d had a terrible row, one of their very few. Fortunately the heat had dissipated quickly, replaced by a primal urge, and neither of them had brought it up again. Important issues had thus been skirted and crucial questions never answered.

Kip considered an alternate scenario. Perhaps this had nothing to do with race. It seemed improbable that the old man would forgive the Delhi fiasco without even a reprimand. Surely an element of punishment must lie at the core of this Canada business. Penance, pure and simple. Face it, tough it out, move ahead. I can do this.