Michael arrived by zip at the address recorded on his schedulea European-style restaurant on the ground floor of a well-maintained home. A woman greeted him, speaking lightly accented English. "Welcome, Mr. Fielding. Ms. Lal has just arrived. Won't you come in?"
Air-conditioning enfolded him. He followed the hostess past widely-spaced tables occupied by well-dressed patrons. At a corner table a woman in a traditional sari rose as he approached. His shades caught her ID and whispered it in his ear. "Muthaye Lal, age twenty-seven, employed by Southern Banking Association four years"
He tapped his glove, ending the recitation.
"Mr. Fielding, so glad you could come."
Coffee was poured, and a waiter brought a first course of papaya, pineapple, and mango. Muthaye tasted it, and smiled. She was not a pretty woman, but her dark eyes were confident as they took Michael's measure. Her enunciation was crisply British. "I will admit to some disappointment, Mr. Fielding, when I learned Global Shear had appointed another foreigner to head this district's office, but your background speaks well for you. Are you familiar with the Southern Banking Association's microeconomics program?"
Michael sipped his coffee, admiring the way criticisms and compliments twined together in her speech like the strands of a rope. Muthaye could have learned her negotiating tactics from Karen Hampton. Michael certainly had.
Rise to all challenges, especially if they've been promptly withdrawn.
He set the coffee down and smiled, choosing to answer the non-question first. "It's Global Shear policy to expand the international experience of our executives. Please don't take it personally. You probably know that seventy percent of our upper-level staff here at Four Villages is Indian."
Amusement danced in Muthaye's eyes. "And that Global Shear employs Indian executives in offices on three continents. Yes, I know, Mr. Fielding. Global Shear is a true multinational, with, I trust, community interests?"
"Of course. Cultural and economic vitality go hand in hand. That's our belief. And the SBA is well-known to us for its community endeavors. While I'm not familiar with the particulars of your microeconomics program, I have studied several others around the world."
Microeconomics had begun in Bangladesh, where a few hundred dollars loaned to a circle of impoverished women could seed a microenterprise that might eventually grow into a thriving business.
"Our program is well established," Muthaye told him. "We have over four thousand women participating in Four Villages alone. Each one of them has developed an independence, a self-reliance their mothers never knew."
Michael nodded. To educate and empower women in underdeveloped areas had long been a key to economic progress. The women's lives were tied up in their children. Selflessness came easier to them than to their men. "Global Shear invests many millions of dollars every year in this cause, throughout the worldand the returns have been impressive."
"Ah. That would be in the form of taxes you collect?"
"A measure of economic vitality."
"And your source of income."
"Doing well by doing good"
"Benefits everyone. Yes, Mr. Fielding, I do agree. I asked for this meeting to discuss with you yet another opportunity for Global Shear to do well by doing good. I would like you to sponsor a line of debit cards to be used by members of the Southern Banking Association. Most of our deposits are tiny, you understand. A few rupees at a time. The money comes in as coinage, and generally it goes out the same way. If the coinage can be exchanged for debit cards, loss from theft would plummet."
"Is theft such a problem for your women?"
A frown marred her brow. "It's often the husbands, you understand?"
Michael flashed on the image of an irate man confiscating his wife's meager earnings, to spend it on
? Drink, perhaps. Or other women. The microeconomic banks had long been convinced that women were the financially responsible members of most marriages, and so most loans were made to women.
Muthaye signaled a waitress for more coffee. "There would, of course, be up-front costs should we institute debit cards. This is the reason we need a sponsor for the program. Our depositors simply do not possess the capital to acquire a debit card through normal routes. The economic scale we deal with is meaningless to anyone in the middle class, whether they live in India or the United States."
Michael nodded. "We're talking about account activity equivalent to a few dollars a week?"
"Exactly. Of course, with debit cards, tax collection for Global Shear would be simplified. Taxes could be paid directly out of the electronic accounts, so that no time would be lost collecting and counting the rupees owed."
Michael reflected that most of Muthaye's clients would fall far below the threshold income for tax collection. "Do your depositors have the math skills to understand this kind of abstract system?"
"Education is a requirement for permanent membership in the SBA, Mr. Fielding. Also, the math we teach will be supplemented by bar graphs on the debit cards."
"Oh." Graphic cards would cost far more than those with a simple magnetic strip. "Well. I'll be happy to assign a staffer to this project. We'll assess costs, and give you an indication of the possibilities in a few days."
As they continued to discuss details, Michael's thoughts returned to Rajban. He wanted to call the house, to see if she was still there. He felt guilty about leaving her alone.
As the minutes wore on, he felt certain Rajban would take advantage of his absence and leave. He realized now that he didn't want that. For where could she possibly go? Back home, he supposed. It would be better if she went home. Wouldn't it?
"Mr. Fielding?" Sharpness touched Muthaye's voice. "You seem distracted. Did you have another appointment?"
"Ah, no. Just a situation at home. My apologies"
He felt the vibration of a call coming in, followed by a barely audible, trilling ring. Vibration/trilling, the combination repeating like a European siren. Michael tapped his data glove.
Take a message.
The shades would not accept the command. "Urgent, urgent, urgent!" the stealthy voice whispered back.
Muthaye was looking at him now with an amused expression. Michael apologized again as he took the call. The voice of Mrs. Nandy, his housekeeper, exploded in his ears. "There is a vagrant in the house, Mr. Fielding! It is a woman of shameful kind. I have her in a corner. She is filthy! Vermin-covered! Mr. Fielding, I will call the police!"
"No, no, no!" His voice boomed through the restaurant, causing heads to turn. "Leave her alone. She is a guest. A guest, you understand? I have asked her in"
"Mr. Fielding! Vermin-covered! Dirty! This is a dirty woman! You cannot mean to have her keep your house"
"No! Nothing like that. You are my housekeeper. Why don't you take the day off, Mrs. Nandy?" he added, trying hard for a soothing tone. "Visit your grandchildren"
"They are in school."
"Don't frighten her, Mrs. Nandy."
"She is vermin-covered!"
"Please?" He looked at Muthaye, at her sharp, dark eyes. "Just leave the house, Mrs. Nandy. Take a holiday."
She finally agreed to go, though Michael didn't know if he could believe her. When the call ended, he looked at Muthaye. "My apologies again, but the situation at homeI really need to go." He started to stand. Then he changed his mind. He sat back down. Muthaye worked regularly with poor women just like Rajban.
Briefly, he told her about the girl he had found on his step. Muthaye's expression hardened as he described Rajban. Her lips set in a tight line and anger gleamed in her eyes. "The charity worker will not come," she said, when he had finished.
"What?" Michael spread his hands helplessly. "Twice she told me someone would be over as soon as possible."
"And no doubt that is true, but the possible comes with many restrictions. You are already caring for Rajban. There will always be cases more pressing than hers. Mr. Fielding, you have been very kind to help this girl. Hers is an old story, in a world that often despises its women. My mother suffered a similar fate. She was abandoned by her family, but she became educated. She learned economic independence. She insisted that I be educated, too. She devoted her life to it."
Michael stared at Muthaye, trying to visualize her as a street waif. He could not. "Your mother did a fine job."
"Indeed. Are you going home straightaway?"
The twists and turns in her conversation put Michael on edge. "Yes. I need to check"
"Good. May I accompany you, Mr. Fielding?"
"Well, yes, of course." He felt relieved at her offer, yet strangely resentful too. Muthaye would take over Rajban's care.
As if to prove it, she announced, "I will call a health aide from the women's league to meet us." She folded her portal and slipped it into her purse. "Ready?"
· · · · ·
They found Rajban in the courtyard. She looked up as the French doors clicked open. Her bruised cheeks were flushed, her face shining with sweat. Fear huddled in her dark eyes. To Michael, she looked like an abused little girl. Muthaye crouched by her side. They talked a minute, then Rajban followed her into the house.
The house announced the arrival of a visitor.
"That will be the health aide," Muthaye told Michael. "Please escort her in."
Michael nodded, wondering when he had lost control of his own house.
The aide was a diminutive woman, yet intense as pepper sauce. With rapid gestures she spread a cloth on the living room floor, then arranged her equipment on it. Muthaye introduced her to Rajban. The three women ignored Michael, so he retreated to his home office. The workload did not stop accumulating just because he was absent.
He linked into the corporate office, downloaded a log of telephone messages, postponed the staff meeting, gave some cursory instructions about the SBA debit card plans. When he returned to the living room, the health aide was just slipping out the front door. Michael looked after her anxiously. "Where is she going? Is she done?"
"Yes, Mr. Fielding." Muthaye leaned forward and patted Rajban's hand. Then, with an unbecoming groan, she clambered to her feet. She seemed older than she had at breakfast, her confidence burned away. "You have been very kind to Rajban. She is deeply grateful."
Muthaye's smile was sad. "What else could you do? I understand, Mr. Fielding"
"Call me Michael, please."
Muthaye nodded. "I know you didn't look for this burden, Michael, and I know the situation is awkward for you. I would ask thoughand I am asking, not Rajbanthat she be allowed to stay the night."
"No. All formal shelters will be full. But by tomorrow, I may be able to find a home for her."
"She's sick, isn't she?"
Muthaye nodded. "She won't name her family. She doesn't want to shame them, especially her mother, who was very proud of the marriage she arranged for Rajban. Her parents are destitute, you understand, but women are becoming rare enough that even daughters with no dowry may find husbands. Rajban's husband is the third son"
"She's married?" Michael interrupted. "But she's just a little girl."
"She's fifteen," Muthaye said. "Child marriage has become fashionable again among certain fundamentalist groups. Rajban has been married two years. She and her husband lived in his mother's house, but her husband was sick. He went away last year and didn't come home. Rajban has never been pregnant, so she believes she is infertile, and so of no value. She has also been frequently sick this past year, and a burden on the family."
Michael felt the sweat of an old terror break out across his brow. "My God. She has AIDS, doesn't she?"
"That would be my guess. No doubt she caught it from her husband. Her family must have suspected the same, so they abandoned her."
"But she can be treated," Michael objected.
No one had to die of AIDS anymore, not if they took control of their lives and lived the medical regimen.
"Given money, given time, yes, the disease can be put into remission," Muthaye agreed. Still, Michael heard resignation in her voice.
"Rajban has no money," he said.
Muthaye nodded. "Rajban has nothing."