It had come on to rain: a chilly drizzle that got into everything and made it damp. Striped yellow tapes flapping in the breeze prompted them to slow the car. Black figures in yellow day-glo jackets stood around in the road. A police officer directed them into a concealed lay-by, the one just before the viaduct: a drop-off point for a nature walk along the river.
Bishop Auckland viaduct was uncharacteristically empty. Police cars barred the way, their blue lamps flashing. Looking along the left-hand wall the reason was apparent: there were blocks angled on the roadway and a ragged gash in the wall where something heavy had gone through.
Peter in his trolley wasn’t tall enough to look over the parapet, but Anitra was. Just. She wouldn’t have recognised the heap of bent metal in the river Wear a hundred feet below, had it not been flaunting its unmistakable rainbow pattern.
That was their bus! Where were Gaby and the boys?
Black peaked-hats in yellow tunics waded in the river. Things were being passed to and fro. Anitra reported all this to Peter Zwillinge who sat grimacing up at her, helpless as a smashed bowl of porridge.
A policeman strode towards them.
“Sorry Madam… and Sir… you can’t stay here.”
Peter spoke up. “We are the next-of-kin. We came immediately you phoned.”
“Oh, I do apologise…” The officer wasn’t sure what to do next. He pulled out his pocketphone to get instructions. Presently he said “Would you care to follow me, Sir… and Miss Starr?”
Peter could have abseiled down into the river, or hovered over the surface on the peroxide rockets fitted to his trolley. But that was not a capability he wanted to display right there and then. So he and Anitra were compelled to wait beside a police car in the lay-by, where the officer radioed for information about what was happening down below.
“The driver is still trapped in the wreckage.”
“Is she alive?”
“I think so. The firemen are bringing in equipment to cut her free.”
“What about the others?” sobbed Anitra. “My brothers…!”
“There should have been eight boys in the bus as well as the driver,” said Peter. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know about that, Sir. There’ve been no reports of anyone picked up out of the river, alive or otherwise. Best go to Bishop Auckland Hospital to wait for the driver and see if they’re brought in.”
Peter reached up and patted Anitra’s hand clutching at his shoulder. “My love… I think we need to split our forces. You go with the officer. I’d better stay here in case there’s something I can do for Gaby.”
The policeman gently took Anitra’s arm and she permitted herself to be led away.
Peter was boiling inside. More than ever he wanted to fire his rockets to sail down to the muddy waters, to get close to Gaby and hold her hand. To rummage in his trolley for some of his marvellous hi-tech equipment. To find he had a magic wand to wave: to make it all to have never happened. He reached under the ledge of his trolley and withdrew a small oblong the size and appearance of a wrapped butterscotch. Glancing around to see no one was watching, he spoke quietly into it.
“Gaby! Can you hear me?”
“Peter, my friend…” Her voice came in muttered gasps. It was so weak. This was his wonderful strong woman, the Angel of Titan. The giant who had plucked him from the clutches of Moonforce, to spirit him to Gaia. The only person he’d ever known who’d been ready to forget his past and let him be born anew. Now she could scarcely talk, clamped in a twist of steel like a sardine in a crushed can, her mouth inches away from gushing water.
“It was… no accident.”
“What do you mean? How could you…?”
“An elstat… know the sound.”
“An elstat!” Peter’s mind raced. An electrostatic grenade: a distinctly Martian weapon. Nobody on Gaia was supposed to know about elstats.
“Fired-on… from a distance… a passenger window smashed, then… crackle-pop!”
“What’s happened to the boys?”
“Must all have been dead before we hit the water. I heard no sound from the back once we came to rest. No crying out — just nothing. The water flooded in…”
“Were all the boys with you in the bus before the crash?”
“Yes… can’t talk any more, they’re coming for me… aagh!” Gaby’s voice was swamped by pain as firemen began to cut her free.
Peter discreetly put away the Selenean wristlink, for that was what it was. If the bus really had been attacked with an electrostatic grenade, surely she’d have died as well? There was a glass screen behind the driver’s seat, that’s how she could have survived the electric shock.
Well, that explained it. Gaby was a careful driver, if a sloppy parker. He couldn’t imagine how it might have happened otherwise. As for the boys, their bodies must have been washed out of the bus into the river. If any had managed to swim ashore, the police would have known by now.
He bitterly regretted sending Anitra away. They should have kept together. She was now the sole surviving stellan — how could he have let her go?
Commissioner Nilsson sat hunched forward in the jolting ambulance during its brief journey to hospital, her hand stroking the casualty’s forehead. The very person she had come to Gaia to question — snatched away from her by this terrible accident.
It was an ill wind, though, that blew nobody any good. The tragedy unrolling before her would at least draw Peter Zwillinge to the scene. There had been no sign of him on the bridge (she didn’t know about the concealed lay-by) so it was most likely he’d turn up sooner or later at the hospital. The sole remaining stellan, Anitra, was already there, according to her information. She knew precisely where the girl would be — and where she would be taken next. It wouldn’t be long before they met up.
Gaby stirred and groaned. “Peter…?” She shook her head sluggishly, sensing a hand upon it. A thin one — not Peter’s.
“…Is safe, for the present. You will see her very soon.”
Gaby detected an accent. She knew the language which went with the accent: Selensk, the language of Selene — and she happened to speak it well. “Hvem er det?” she murmured in a trembling voice.
“Det er Jutta Nilsson her. Commissioner Jutta Nilsson. Don’t worry. Everything’s okay.”
Nilsson was about to say more, but she checked herself. The victim had distinctly said “Peter”. Quite likely he was in the vicinity — and she’d been in wristlink contact with him.
Now Nilsson knew that without the repeaters embedded in the walls of every concourse on Selene a wristlink had a range of barely fifty metres. By now the ambulance was far away from the scene of the accident, so it had been safe enough to reveal her name.
Or so she imagined.
“Commissioner… I’m sorry… so very, very sorry…” It was the last thing Gaby ever said.
Leaning forward even further, Nilsson caressed the victim’s forehead. “Don’t try to speak any more. Conserve your strength. We’re nearly there. Soon you’ll be in a nice warm bed.”
But Gabrielle Starr wasn’t going in a nice warm bed. Following a cursory examination in Casualty she went straight in the refrigerator.
Commissioner Nilsson had been one of the most successful, most persistent investigators Moonforce had ever had. She was spending her retirement as a freelance agent, tracking down the “Butcher of the Gaiascope”. For him there would be no amnesty, however long he lived. She had the full co-operation of her former employers, plus splendid resources. Better, she reflected, than those she’d enjoyed as a serving officer.
She was proud of her grasp of electronics. It had been an essential skill in investigating the Gaiascope atrocity, which had ingeniously exploited a security weakness in the Adin Beam. But she was not a technical genius of the calibre of Peter Zwillinge, and she had overlooked the possibility that he could improve on the standard wristlink.
Although he had indeed been out of range the first time Gaby had called out his name, once back again in range he heard her appeal — plus Nilsson’s reply. As soon as he reached the hospital and tried to re-establish contact with Gaby, he knew that Nilsson would be there too, waiting for him.
But he’d keep one step ahead of her. Not for the first time. Once before he had fooled her into letting him depart from Selene on the Oberon. For which she was now hunting him down across world after world, in atonement for her disastrous mistake.
“Anitra. Listen to me.”
“Is that you, Uncle Peter? I can hear your voice.”
“Put your ear close to the bracelet I gave you.”
“Hush,” he commanded. “See the charm that looks like the Smiling Sun? It’s also an ear-stud. Put it in your ear.”
Anitra did so — and she could hear Peter much better. He said “Are you alone? Is anybody looking at you?”
“No…” Her voice was hesitant.
“By now you’ll have met a Selenean lady called Jutta Nilsson.”
“Yes, that’s right. How did you know? Is she a friend of yours?”
“Where is she now?”
Anitra was stunned by Peter’s tone of voice. Why hadn’t he answered the question?
“She’s talking to the mortuary attendant. She’s come back in the ambulance with Gaby — poor Gaby! — and she’s done the honours for me. I wouldn’t have had the heart.” She choked on a sob. “I do wish you’d been here.”
“I wish so too, my treasure.”
Well, at least that sounded closer to the heart. But maybe a little more than she’d expected. Had parting company been such an awful mistake?
“I’ll call Miss Nilsson over and you can talk to her.”
It shocked her to hear Peter say those words — the vehemence with which he’d said them.
His voice continued. “She wants to come back home with you, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she does… She’s awfully nice. Will you be home soon yourself? Shall I make tea for us all?” She needed to be doing something practical. To talk to someone. To prattle.
“No. Try to slip away from her. Lose her in the corridors.”
“Anitra, believe me — you must. Nice as she seems, she doesn’t mean us well.”
“Run away. If all else fails, hide in a cupboard.”
Nilsson, still talking to the orderly, happened to glance round at Anitra and abruptly stopped in mid-sentence. The look on the Selenean’s face startled Anitra. She turned and bolted. As she ran she heard Nilsson cry out, “Stop her!”
“Uncle Peter,” she gasped, “I’m only doing what you said.”
“I know. I can hear.” A dry chuckle. “When you’ve shaken her off, call me back.”
“How do I do that?”
“Speak naturally, like you’re doing now. Just say my name.”
Anitra glanced back over her shoulder — and ran all the faster.
“Have you got away from her?”
“I’m trying to, but she’s using this pen-like thing. It always ends up pointing at me. It’s scary.”
“She’s stuck a bug on you…” There was a pause. “Okay, here’s what to do.”
Peter instructed her to look on her charm bracelet for one of the little death’s-heads. “When you’re in an empty corridor coming to a corner — and you know she’s just behind you — drop it on the floor and run like the blazes. I’ve made it so it can’t possibly hurt you.”
“What will it do to her?”
Peter hesitated. He would have killed Nilsson without pity. In the end it was going to be him or her, so sooner or later he would have to do it. But he couldn’t delegate the job to Anitra, of all people.
She didn’t know he was wanted on the Moon for mass-murder. He dreaded what would happen if she found out.
When she found out.
“Change of plan, love. Put it back on your bracelet. Keep running.”
Evading Nilsson didn’t count as a crime. On Gaia the jurisdiction of Moonforce was utterly void. Not since 1873 had Selene had an extradition treaty with any terrestrial nation. Nilsson was completely off her turf.
“When you’re far enough away from her, feel down your clothing. Look for anything that wasn’t there before. It will be small, and it may be transparent.”
“I’ve found something. It’s like a sticky rice-grain.”
“That’s it. Flick it away with your thumb and forefinger. Onto something moving, if you can.”
Further down the corridor Anitra could see a trolley being pushed towards her. She had just passed the entrance to the operating theatre and she guessed that’s where the trolley was heading. Lying on it was a patient with his eyes closed and the porter was looking down at the ground. Unwittingly the patient took delivery of Anitra’s grain of rice.
Peter laughed. “Well done, love. That’ll keep her busy for a while. Now listen carefully. Can you see any signs to the exit?”
“Yes, I’ve just passed one. And there’s another one. But… it’s pointing the other way!”
“There are two main exits from the hospital. It doesn’t matter which you take: I’ve ordered two taxis for you — one at each exit. They are waiting there now, or so they assure me. Go out any door. When you see a taxi, get in it and say your name is Gillian Brown. Got that?”
She had never done anything like this before. Of course she hadn’t: Peter and Gaby had brought her up far too well. She was proving to be pretty alert though. Peter was proud of her.
There was just one thing that worried him. Blind obedience had never been prominent among her many virtues. Would she be able to carry out instructions to the letter? It was something they’d find out soon enough.
Behind her, Anitra could hear raised voices, among them the Selenean tones of Commissioner Nilsson, trying awkwardly to explain herself and why she’d chosen to barge into the operating theatre. Anitra’s mood briefly lightened and she heard herself snigger.
Turning a corner she found she was in a crowded lobby. Out-patients were there in numbers, awaiting treatment. She saw sliding glass exit doors with daylight shining through and broke into a run. Everybody looked at her. Her face glowing with shame, pulsating in primary colours — which must have drawn attention to her even more — she slowed down again and left the building as decorously as she could.
She saw a taxi waiting. Heart pounding with relief, she wrenched open the back door and climbed inside.
“Where’re you off to, flower?”
“Home. Have you been ordered for me? I’m Gillian Brown.”
“I’m waiting for someone called Anitra Starr.”
Anitra opened her mouth to say yes, that was in fact her real name. Then the ramifications struck her with a pang of fright. She tumbled out, grazing the heel of her palm on the gritty ground. Leaving the door open she began to run.
“Hey, get back in!” cried the driver. He got out of his cab. Behind there was another taxi. Without hesitation she got into it. “I’m Gillian Brown,” she gasped, and locked the door. Without a word from the driver, the taxi drew away.
The first taxi man waved his arms and banged on the side window as the cab went past him. Anitra stared fixedly in front of her. Her driver did the same. She might have been a princess being driven through a crowd.
They’d been going for a quarter of an hour and had reached Crook town centre. Neither she nor the taxi man had spoken. Gaby had driven her and the boys everywhere, so she was familiar with all the townlets and tiny pit-villages which sprawled across Wear Valley, plus the complex net of narrow hilly roads connecting them. She soon noticed that they were not going north towards Esh Winning, but had taken the A690 to Durham City via Willington.
“Why are we going this way?” she said. “It’s much quicker to go through Billy Row.”
“We’re going to the Royal County Hotel in Durham, like your da’ said.”
Panic again clutched at Anitra’s throat. “No!” she choked. “It’s home I want. Take me there. Please-please!”
“Esh Winning. I’ll guide you…”
“I know the way.” The driver sniffed. “I’ll take the ring road.” To Anitra’s incredulity he sounded as if he was prepared to do exactly what she said.
A little voice sang in her ear like a gnat. “I heard all that. You’re not going where you’re meant to.”
Anitra was about to answer back when she realised the taxi man would think her peculiar talking into thin air. As though he didn’t already. She had a brilliant idea and pulled out the mobile phone she’d been given on her 18th birthday: the latest Motorola you could hold in one hand. “Hi,” she said to the idle phone. “No, Uncle Peter, I’m going home first.”
“Anitra, don’t go home. Dolpou Zvezda is staying at the Royal County Hotel. You’re to go straight there and ask for her.”
“I have to go home first. There’s something I’ve got to pick up.” It was clear to her that Uncle Peter and the scary Martian lady between them were planning on her never setting foot in the house again. But there was no way she was going to abandon the beautiful present she’d made for Dorian. She’d put so much work into it: lavished so much love on it. What could possibly replace all that?
“Anitra, you must do as I say. Must! Please…”
Anitra took out the ear-stud and clenched it in her palm to stifle its tiny voice. By the time they reached Esh Winning, the June sun had gone down. A few brief directions from her and the taxi came to a halt outside her house. Trembling, subliminally aware that heavy consequences hung on her disobedience, she opened the door and got out.
As she did so, the ear-stud fell out of her hand. She scrabbled on her hands and knees looking for it in the gutter, but in the fading light she couldn’t see it. Eighteen-year-olds have the acutest hearing they will ever have in their lives. She was sure there was a little voice saying, “Get back in the taxi, Anitra. Please! Now!”
She clenched her jaw, got up and turned towards the house. She groped in her coat pocket for her freshly-cut front-door key, its keen edge scratching reassuringly against her thumb.
The house was all in darkness. Even though there was still a bit of daylight, the low threatening rainclouds were making everything look spooky. She imagined her brothers’ dead faces staring out of every window. She waited hopelessly for Gaby to come rushing out the door and wrap her in her arms and tell her none of this had really happened.
But it had.
Suddenly she wept uncontrollably, hot tears of loss and fright.
“Areet, pet?” The taxi man sounded genuinely concerned.
She’d made a lot of heavy decisions that day. Perhaps it was only because she’d done so without hesitation, following her instinct and being proven right each time, that she did what she did next. Getting back into the taxi she sobbed “I’m not going in. Take me to the hotel. Quick as you can.”
Inside the house a stranger’s hand let the lounge curtain fall back. “She’s getting away. Out there and snatch her!”
“No. Wrong thing to do. The taxi might escape. Wait till it’s driven off, then we’ll follow and get an echo lock on ‘em.”
But scarcely had the taxi drawn away from the kerb when another vehicle pulled up in its place. The door opened, but nobody stepped out.
“Bózhe-moi! It’s Peter Zwillinge. Get back under cover!”
A thick arm snaked out of the car and pudgy fingers felt in the gutter for something miniscule without needing to look for it. It soon found what it was after and the arm withdrew. Then a trolley was brought forward from the back of the car and pushed out through the open door.
Like an orang-utan, Peter manhandled himself with his mighty arms out of the car and into the trolley. Leaving the engine running, he trundled determinedly towards the house. Anyone who knew him would have sensed he was ready for trouble of any kind — and it would have made them quail.
But for once he wasn’t ready enough.
…to be continued.