Anitra’s taxi turned off Old Elvet to pass under the arch in the middle of the Royal County Hotel and stopped outside Reception. Anitra got out and tried to pay the driver but he refused, saying it was all settled. Then he drove off.
She peered in her purse before closing it. Her ready cash was getting low, but she had a brand-new Mastercard: another thing that came with her eighteenth birthday. She proudly stroked its crisp white edge, wondering if she’d soon get a chance to use it in earnest.
It was late and daylight was fading fast. There was no wind, but it was cold and raw. A drizzle had started again. As droplets floated past the hotel lights, they sparkled and danced their way from darkness into darkness, like rainbow midges in a forest sunbeam.
She had never been in a hotel on her own. It was hard getting out of the schoolgirl mentality: at any moment she anticipated someone was going to come out and tell her off for being out-of-bounds. “I have as much right to be here as anyone,” she lectured herself, and squared her shoulders.
She had a purse with ten pounds and a Mastercard: what more did anyone need to go into a hotel on their own? Her hair look nice, if a little damp, and her raincoat looked smashing. She wasn’t a beggar… and she wasn’t a prostitute trying to pick up a client. She approached the reception desk with as much confidence as she could muster.
The girl behind the desk smiled at her, inviting her inquiry, which served as encouragement for what she was doing. She did wish however that people wouldn’t stare at her face when she didn’t have her make-up on.
“Do you have a guest staying here by the name of Dolpou Zvezda?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Anitra had to repeat the name twice more. People began to look at her — or so she felt. The reason for the funny name was because she was a Martian, Anitra nearly said, but felt it was better not to.
“I don’t know… I’ll have to look it up on the computer.” The expression of puzzlement deepened on the receptionist’s face. “Could you spell it for me please?”
Anitra wrote it down on a slip of paper: DOLPOU ZVEZDA. Frowning, the girl stared at the paper, then at the screen which made her features shine, though not with the light of intelligence. She slowly shook her head. She hadn’t expected to find the name and she didn’t.
First hurdle down. Perhaps Dolpou was travelling under a different name? Something ordinary like Miss Smith… she wouldn’t have been surprised. Her face would have seemed strange enough — like Anitra’s. To go giving a strange name as well was one strangeness too many.
But it gave Anitra a bold idea. “Have you got a lady staying here who looks like me?” The girl was clearly taken aback by the frankness of the question. But it did have the merit of hauling Anitra back out of Funnyland and putting the onus on the staff to confirm or deny it.
“I — I don’t know — I’ve only just come on. I’ll ask the manager…”
“No, don’t bother… not just yet.” Anitra wanted to do anything but make a fuss and draw further attention to herself. “Is there anywhere I can wait inside, out of the rain?”
“There’s the coffee shop, but it’s just closing. You could sit in the lobby in one of the armchairs… or there’s the bar…”
Thanking her, Anitra began to walk slowly in the direction the girl had pointed. The lobby was well-lit: she would be far too conspicuous sitting there. In the bar however the lighting was dim and intimate. She picked an empty table in an alcove, where she supposed she’d be less noticeable. But after a minute a boy of roughly her age came over. A good-looking boy, Anitra thought.
“Is this seat taken?”
Her heart went thud. “I-I’m afraid so.” The boy went away again.
She leaned sideways and peered round the rustic timber screen into the lobby. She couldn’t quite see the main entrance from where she sat. There was little hope that Dolpou would simply walk by. How on earth was she going to make contact with her? It was all very well for Uncle Peter to say: just go to the hotel and find her.
Putting her elbows on the table she plunged her face into her hands. She felt a great hole in her life where Gaby had been brutally torn away. She clenched her jaw and swallowed. If she started crying now she knew she wouldn’t stop. And they’d have to lead her away, a sobbing bundle, to the manager’s office and sit her down in a chair and try and make some sense out of her.
Taking out her mobile for something to do, she phoned home. If Peter was there the phone call would connect with his fancy gadgets. So when it rang and rang, she knew he wasn’t.
Or did she? Might something nasty have happened to him? She had a bad feeling about it. It was a day for nasty things to happen. Oh, how stupid of her to go losing her ear-stud.
“Can I get you something to drink, Madam?” She looked up and blinked. A waiter was standing in front of her, waiting for her order.
Madam: did he mean her? When you’ve only just left school, it takes a week or two to get used to being called “Madam”. Flustered, she replied “I’ll just have a lemonade thank you.”
When the waiter had gone away again, she chided herself for not having had the presence of mind to order two drinks: one for her and one for Dolpou — when eventually she came. It wouldn’t make it quite so plain that she was there on her own.
What was she worried about? Didn’t people meet up in hotels all the time? Yes, but maybe most of them had something to hide. Something to be furtive about. Well, that’s how she felt: furtive. She imagined unseen eyes appraising her, weighing her up, popping her into one of a small number of pigeon-holes. Waiting for her sugar-daddy? No doubt: too young to be anything else.
But if they could have seen her face in full light, with its swirling, dancing colours, the pigeon-holes would have dwindled alarmingly. Orphaned alien hybrid, waiting for the Lady from Mars to turn up on spec? — oh yes of course, what else?
How long would the hotel let her sit there, she wondered. Possibly all evening, what there was left of it, growing more and more uncomfortable as the minutes dragged by. But she couldn’t stay there all through the night. Uncle Peter had been most insistent that she should not go home. Why not? Perhaps he wasn’t sure himself, but he’d implied there was danger in doing so. As yet she didn’t know (as he did) that the bus crash hadn’t been an accident but an assassination.
What would he have wanted her to do if she couldn’t make contact with Dolpou? Check-in for the night? There might be enough money in her account for a drink or two, but not to stay the night in a four-star hotel.
The waiter brought her order. It didn’t look a very grown-up drink: it had a slice of lemon and plenty of ice — and there were a pair of straws. There was also a chitty on a little silver tray, which she could have signed-off to her room-number, had she been staying. The price was certainly grown-up.
After an hour the drink was gone, the ice sucked dry and Anitra was still not able to decide for the best. She was growing more and more fretful. There was nothing for it: she’d simply have to go home and find out what had happened. Back in the house, if Uncle Peter still hadn’t come home, she might find Dolpou’s phone number, or some sensible instructions for getting in touch with her. The chance was a meagre one. But stuck out here in Durham City she could do nothing at all.
She beckoned the waiter over and gave him the chitty and her ten pound note. There wasn’t much change when the waiter returned, and there was even less after she’d left him a tip — perhaps too generous a one, but she felt intimidated by her predicament.
There wouldn’t be enough cash for a taxi home. She would have to go and find a cash machine in town. There were bound to be some in the Market Place. She hoped that she would remember her PIN number correctly and that the machine wouldn’t just eat her brand-new card and leave her destitute in the dark. She didn’t want to ask if there was a cash machine in the hotel because she felt she’d already outstayed her welcome — even though nobody had offered her the slightest reason to go thinking that. She was feeling extremely sorry for herself: this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to someone who had just lost their family.
Outside it had stopped raining. The air felt warmer and the darkness was actually inviting in its anonymity. She walked under the arch of the hotel to the street… and as she did so a car turned from Old Elvet to drive into the car-park, skidding slightly as it braked. For a moment she was picked out clearly in the headlights. She stepped to one side to let the car pass, but instead of starting off again she heard the rasp of a handbrake being forcefully applied and the driver’s door flew open. She panicked. Not knowing which way to run, she froze.
A moment later she smelled a distinctive perfume as two soft but powerful arms enfolded her in an embrace.
Back in Dolpou’s hotel-room, sitting side-by-side on the bed, the dam holding back Anitra’s emotions had burst and she’d dumped the lot in tears on the groubian’s shoulder. Now she was lying curled up on the pillow, having cried herself to sleep.
Dolpou sat gazing down at her, one soft hand fondling her long black hair. There was a knock at the door. She rose to her feet and peered through the spy-hole. It was room service with the hot chocolate she’d ordered for the girl, but it seemed a shame to wake her.
She had to remember, she told herself, that it was not a baby groubian she was caring for, but a young gaian adult, for which the treatment in distress was altogether different.
A gaian adult — in the skin of a groubian child!
There hadn’t been a groubian child for fifty thousand years, but it was impossible to forget how they were brought up. Rarely by their own mothers, who died in childbirth as a rule, but by the whole community. It was a slow, sometimes painful training, which could go on as long as three hundred Martian years – groubians were not admitted to adulthood until they were quite ready.
The learning capacity and resourcefulness of young gaians never ceased to amaze her. For such a short-lived species they were remarkably intelligent — if intelligence it really was, and not just released instinct. But in her opinion gaian children were routinely entrusted with heavy decisions to have to make, having only rudimentary experience of an unforgiving world, whether that world be Mars or Gaia.
Dolpou had got Anitra to tell her everything. So there had been no opportunity to tell her anything in return. Such as: where she, Dolpou, had been all that afternoon.
Taking a rest in her hotel room, having got back from Anitra’s house around midday, Dolpou had seen news of the crash on regional TV. Straightaway she’d hurried — not to the scene of the accident, like Anitra and her uncle — but to police headquarters at Aykley Heads.
In her capacity as a member of the Olympian Supreme Council, Dolpou was entitled to booner status on Mars, which on Gaia automatically made her a Martian envoy. It was nothing the local police would appreciate, but it carried enormous privileges: ones however to be used only in emergency.
It was an emergency now.
She had phoned her Foreign Office contacts in London and an hour later a chief superintendent appeared in the waiting room to inform her that they’d been instructed to afford her every cooperation.
“How should I introduce myself in order to elicit this cooperation?”
“That is up to you, your Excellency. But let me suggest you say you’re from the Office of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary.”
Dolpou nodded. Knowing what she did about English police forces, it made sense.
What happened next came as a severe shock. A detective inspector having been assigned to her as her guide, she was straightaway taken to meet another visitor purportedly from the same “Office”. “You will of course… er… know each other?”
As it happened, they did. It was none other than Commissioner Nilsson.
Dolpou knew the Commissioner of old from frequent high-level visits to Selene when Nilsson was in charge of Moonforce. They had formed an exalted opinion of each other’s abilities – and a dismal one of each other’s personalities.
Before Nilsson could reply to the officer, Dolpou hissed a challenge to her in Selensk: “Hvad gør Selstyrke her, på Gaia?” What was Moonforce doing here, on Earth?
“Shto delaet Goubernatzia zdess, na Geia?” Nilsson countered in a low growl, using the Martian language M1. What was the Office of the Goubernator doing here, on Earth? Then, remembering they were in company, Nilsson forced her lips into a smile. “It is better that we speak English, I think?”
After brief pleasanteries for the benefit of their hosts, during which neither saw fit to mention Selstyrke or Goubernatzia again, whether in Selensk, M1 or English, Nilsson was driven off to the scene of crime. The scene of the accident, as they all pretended to each other. Dolpou later learned that she had accompanied Gabrielle in the ambulance, had met up with Anitra at the hospital – and had subsequently managed to lose her. Ever since, Dolpou had been making frantic efforts to find out where Anitra had gone.
As the exhausted girl slept on the bed, Dolpou took the opportunity to phone the family home. Anitra had said she’d got no answer when she’d phoned earlier that evening, but there was no harm in trying once again.
This time, to her surprise, a stranger’s voice came on the line. “Family Starr’s house. Can I take a message?”
Dolpou thought she detected a Selenean accent. In a moment of inspiration she said “Can I speak to Commissioner Nilsson?”
“Who is it?”
“Her colleague from the Inspectorate of Constabulary.” Dolpou’s words were precise and clipped.
There was silence. Dolpou fully expected the phone to be put down. But a moment later there came a different voice. “Nilsson here.”
“Commissioner — what a surprise!”
“It shouldn’t be. You knew who I was after.”
“Of course I do. It happens to be just the person I want to speak to. Could you put him on the line please?”
“I’m sorry. He can’t come to the telephone.”
Dolpou’s voice went harsh. “What have you done to him, you thugs?”
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Zvezda. We’ve found Peter Zwillinge in a sad state of health. For his own wellbeing we’ve frozen him down in a hibernator. I want him alive and well… to stand trial on Selene for mass-murder.”
“The modern version of the rolled-up carpet, eh?”
“If by that remark you mean to ask ‘will he be conveyed to the Moon in hibernation?’ the answer is yes. If you have anything important to tell him, then you’ll have to leave your message with me.”
“Tell him that Miss Smith inquired after his health. As did his niece.”
Nilsson snapped back at her like a piece of elastic. “Do you have the girl with you right now?”
Dolpou hesitated. She nearly said yes, then decided to make Moonforce a gift of as little information as possible. Echoing the other’s tone of voice, she said “Don’t jump to conclusions yourself, Nilsson.”
The Commissioner began to bluster. “Anitra Starr is a vital witness for the prosecution of Peter Zwillinge for mass-murder. The only living witness, as it transpires. You will kindly hand her over to me without further delay.”
“Commissioner, aren’t you exceeding your authority somewhat? Peter Zwillinge has done nothing to infringe British law, so far as I’m aware, and there has been no extradition treaty with Selene since 1873. If you’ve harmed him in any way, I could have you arrested for assault and kidnap.”
“And what is your authority for withholding Anitra Starr?”
“I am the executrix of her mother’s will. In that capacity I am her legal guardian.”
“Legal on Mars maybe… but not here on Earth. Did you just use the word ‘kidnap’?”
Dolpou spoke like an affronted empress. “Anitra is coming back with me to Mars of her own volition.”
By now the girl was awake and sitting up, staring wild-eyed at Dolpou.
“You are aware,” said the voice on the telephone, “that in order to get back to Mars you will have to pass through Selene?”
“You will not dare to hinder me,” Dolpou snarled, “or else you will precipitate an intermondial incident of the utmost gravity.”
“Your Excellency…” Nilsson stressed the words with heavy irony. “You are free to come and go as you please. It is Anitra we want. She will be detained the moment you both reach Lunaborg. So… less from you about having me arrested.”
It was lucky they were communicating on a terrestrial telephone, or Nilsson would have seen Dolpou go the colour of a boiled lobster. In a voice trembling with fury she replied “You are mistaken, Commissioner, if you think I’m going to hand Anitra over to Selenean irregulars.” The last word came out rough and gravelly. “Once we reach the Moon we shall surrender ourselves to the proper authorities — and to no lesser agencies.” She slammed down the phone.
As her anger ebbed, her face went blotchy purple-grey, like petrol spilt on water in a murky harbour. Anitra knew the look of her: it was how she herself went when she was deeply upset.
“Dolpou – what was all that about?”
“Get your shoes on, Star-child — we must fly! Nilsson and her Moonforce ruffians will be here at any moment.”
…to be continued.