Rani smiled happily and took a sip of her coffee. She was sitting at a pavement table outside the Café Les Deux Musées on the corner of Rue de Lille and Rue de Bellechasse...
It was one of her dad’s better ideas, she thought as she read a leaflet about the Musée d’Orsay that was on the table. The imposing edifice of the museum was directly opposite the café. It was next on the day’s sightseeing agenda, but not just yet. She was happily contemplating a Parisian café lunch as soon as her parents were done poking around the antique shop they found on Rue de Bellechasse.
She didn’t mind them lingering over the antiques as long as she could sit here drinking coffee and feeling very grown up and sophisticated. She was wearing a light brown sundress and sandals and just a little light make up – as much as her dad would permit. She knew she LOOKED grown up and sophisticated sitting there. Any number of young men had paid her a second glance as they walked past. Parisian men, who knew what style was, thought she was worth looking at.
Not that she had any intention of acting upon their interest. She was only sixteen, after all. But it was nice to know she could command their attention.
Besides, she was spoken for, kind of. Her smile widened as she looked at the silver charm bracelet on her left wrist – Clyde Langer’s Valentine’s present to her. On Thursday, before they set off on their Easter break family trip, Clyde had given her the newest charm to put on it. It was a little pewter Eiffel Tower to celebrate her going to Paris. Of course, she could probably buy a dozen Eiffel Tower charms here. But that wasn’t the point. Clyde had given her that one, and that made it special.
The feeling of being grown up and sophisticated evaporated as her parents arrived noisily and sat down at the table. Her mother was carrying on a one sided conversation about the vase she had purchased at the antique shop. It would make a great talking point in the flower shop, she said. A bit of Parisian finesse in Ealing High Street.
Her father wasn’t listening to her mother. He was reading the menu aloud, first in French, then translated to English. The odd thing was, both of her parents thought they were having a conversation with her. In fact, she wasn’t really listening to either of them. She was just sitting there, wishing they would both shut up or go shopping again and let her enjoy her Parisian café experience.
Her hand was still on the charm bracelet. Her fingers idly fiddled with the little Eiffel Tower. She was a little surprised when the top of the tower turned as if it was on a screw thread.
Then she was very surprised when she started to hear voices around her – lots of voices, not just the people walking along the street or sitting at the café tables, but a whole extra layer of sound. The loudest was her mother’s voice near to her. She turned and noticed that her mother wasn’t talking, now. She was sipping her coffee and looking at the menu for herself. But Rani could hear her, all the same, stumbling over the French for onion soup and fresh bread roll and wishing Haresh would shut up reading the menu out loud so that she could concentrate.
Rani took a deep breath as she realised she was hearing her mother’s thoughts. She looked at the Eiffel Tower on her bracelet and twisted the top back around. The extra voices stopped. It was like turning off a radio.
She turned it on again and listened to a woman walking past who was bored and ready to scream if she visited one more antique shop. Her partner, by her side, was excited because there was an antique shop on Rue de Bellechasse.
“That’s going to end in tears,” she thought. So were the couple who passed by hand in hand and looking like two perfect lovers. The man was thinking very inappropriate thoughts about his girlfriend’s brother, and wondering how he could break it off with her and still be friends.
“Bloody Pakis, they get everywhere!”
Rani looked around to see who had thought that. She recognised the man straight away. He had stopped on the corner to consult a pocket map of Paris. It was a British A-Z map. The man was a tourist just like she was.
“As if there aren’t enough of that sort in London, I have to put up with them on holiday, too. At least here they don’t get it all their own way. The French government banned that burka thing. They have to dress properly like normal people. None of their Islamification nonsense here....”
Rani turned the tower top back into ‘off’ position again. The voice cut off. It wasn’t the first time in her life that she had encountered racism, of course. It wasn’t even the first time she or her parents had been mistaken for Muslims. Her father was always getting comments about him being a teacher in a British school, some of them really nasty and unpleasant and accusing him of outrageous things. The sort of people who had those kind of ideas saw skin colour and that was all.
What shocked her was that this man didn’t look like somebody who would think those kind of thoughts. He was nicely dressed, neatly groomed, with pleasant features. He didn’t look any different to the young men who had been looking appreciatively at her when she was sitting alone with her coffee.
“Actually, we’re Church of England,” she called out to him. He looked startled and a little disconcerted before he hurried away.
“What... was that about?” her mother asked. Her father was still reading the menu aloud and didn’t even notice anything wrong.
“Nothing,” Rani answered. “Dad, you don’t need to translate the menu. I do French at school, remember. I’d like the toasted brie starter. Get that for mum, too. She’ll like it. And I think the chicken Provencal and salad would be good for the main course. After that, we can just pick something from the sweet trolley. We don’t need to know what the desserts are called to know if they look good.”
“She’s right,” Gita added. “Haresh, call the waiter over and order. I’m absolutely famished. It’s hungry work being on holiday.”
Rani got through the toasted brie course before reaching again to turn the screw on the Eiffel Tower. She just had to know if anyone else passing by had the same sort of thoughts about her and her family as that man.
None of them did. One teenage boy who walked by during the chicken Provencal and a girl who passed by while she was savouring a slice of lemon cheese cake from the trolley both thought she was ‘fit’ – or the French equivalent of that adjective - but most of the people were busy with their own thoughts and their own lives.
She turned it off as they went into the Musée D’Orsay. There was a sign asking people to switch off their mobile phones, and she felt as if the rule should apply to mysterious devices for listening to other people’s thoughts, too. She was glad she did. The gallery was a wonderful place and she wanted to really enjoy the paintings for herself, not worry about what other people thought about them, or what other people might be thinking instead of enjoying the paintings.
She broke her vow just once when they came to what was, without a shadow of a doubt, her mother’s favourite painting in the whole world. Gita Chandra stood in front of Claude Monet’s ‘Coquelicots’ and said absolutely nothing. Rani turned the top of the Eiffel Tower slowly and heard her mother’s thoughts tuning in like an old-fashioned analogue radio.
“But it looks all faded, and dull,” her mother was thinking in a disappointed tone. “I thought the poppies would be bright red and the woman’s parasol vibrant blue. And I thought it would be clearer. But it just looks fuzzy and dull, and it needs a really good clean.”
“Oh, mum,” Rani thought. “Trust you. All these years you’ve had a cheap copy of that picture hanging up in the dining room, and now you’re looking at the real thing and it doesn’t measure up!”
She slipped her hand into her mum’s hand and squeezed it.
“It’s a fantastic picture,” she said. “When you look at it close up like this, you can see each individual dot of paint that he used to build up the image. Look at the lady’s dress. You can see that he didn’t just slap on purple paint. It’s thousands of specks of red and blue paint close together so they look like purple to our eyes. It’s brilliant.”
“It’s called pointillism, you know,” Gita said in response. “Really, really clever.”
“This is way better than that print we have at home,” Rani added. “It’s too garish, with the colours artificially enhanced. This is the real thing, in the actual colours the artist used in 1873. It’s over a hundred and eighty years old. No wonder it’s a tiny bit faded. But it would be criminal to try to mess with it. This is the REAL thing.”
“Yes.” Gita smiled. “Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic. It was worth all those hours on the Eurostar listening to your dad rabbiting on about art and culture just to see this for real. Oh, Rani, love, take your dad to the Van Gogh room or something so I can just stand here and enjoy this one to myself for a bit.”
“Yeah, why not,” Rani said with a smile. She saw her dad hovering close by and went to steer him away into the adjoining gallery, leaving her mum to her blissful appreciation of Monet’s Poppies.
She had to turn the thought reading off while looking at art with her dad. He could think and talk at the same time about three different subjects and it got very distracting. Besides, the Van Gogh room was busy and she hadn’t worked out how to filter out overlapping thoughts from so many different people at once.
But later, when they went back to the Hotel du Quai Voltaire she went to her room with a delightful view over the river Seinne and ignored the view completely in favour of the free wi-fi facility. She attached the webcam to the top of her laptop screen and accessed the Skype programme. As she hoped, Clyde was hanging out at Sarah Jane’s attic, but Sarah Jane wasn’t there. That was good, for now. Sarah Jane’s advice and expertise might be useful later, but for now she really wanted to talk to Clyde.
“Hey, stranger,” he said cheerfully. “How is Paris?”
“It’s great,” she answered. “I wish you’d come with us, though. You’d have LOVED the art galleries.”
“One day, maybe,” Clyde responded. “Mum does her best, but she can’t really afford to pay for me to go off on weekends in Paris on her wages.”
Rani mentally kicked herself. Clyde’s mum was a single parent with a single income. Her dad was a headmaster and her mum had her own business. They were miles apart financially, and reminding him of that wasn’t her intention.
“I really wanted to ask you about something,” she said, changing the subject quickly to the main reason for her call. “The little Eiffel Tower charm you gave me - where did you get it?”
“Little jewellery shop on Bond Street… not the posh one in the West End, side street off of Ealing Broadway,” he answered. “Second hand jewellery… you know… antique…. I think it used to be a tanning salon until the council had a crackdown on licensing those places. Why?”
She explained in as much detail as possible, holding the bracelet up and showing how the top twisted.
“I think it’s getting stronger,” she said. “I can hear mum thinking about Monet’s Poppies, still, and dad reading about Montmartre. And there’s a chambermaid outside thinking about her boyfriend and having a nice time with him tonight when her shift finishes. Funny that. She’s an Algerian immigrant, and she’s thinking in Algerian, even though she probably speaks French to the people she works with. And I can understand her thoughts. And come to think of it, I was surrounded by people from all sorts of countries all day in the D’Orsay, and I could understand all of them. I’m good at French, but not all the other languages. I think this thing translates their thoughts to English as well.”
“Do you know what I’m thinking?” Clyde asked. Rani tried, but shook her head,
“No,” she answered him. “It’s probably too much to expect it to work over a Skype connection. People need to be closer to me than that.”
“It’s pretty cool, though,” Clyde told her. “Maybe you should practice using it, see if you can focus on one person and shut out all the crowds, something like that. It might be useful.”
“I suppose so. But… it’s kind of…”
“Well, it feels… people’s thoughts, they’re private. I feel as if I shouldn’t be intruding. It’s worse than reading somebody’s diary.”
“Yeah, but… I mean, like that racist git. At least you know the truth about him. And you helped your mum feel ok about that painting. And… you want to be a journalist. Imagine what you could do with it? You could be interviewing somebody and you’d know if he was telling the truth or not.”
“Maybe…. I don’t know. It scares me a little, having so much power over people. I could find out their pin numbers or anything.”
“Yeah, but you won’t. Or if you do, you won’t do anything bad with it. You’re not like that. If anyone is going to have it, it’s better you than some git who would steal stuff.”
“I… suppose so.” He had a point. “I’ll… give it a try. Dad’s coming to the door. Talk about homework.”
Haresh knocked on the communal door between the two bedrooms and waited for her to call before he entered his daughter’s room.
“We’re going on the Paris by night tour later,” he told her. “It’s an open top bus trip around all the sights, followed by a cabaret and dinner. We’ll be picked up outside the hotel at nine-thirty.”
“Sounds great, dad,” Rani answered. “It’s only five o’clock, now. Is it all right if I go for a walk down on the river bank?”
Haresh hesitated. Rani heard his thoughts. He had heard things about Parisian men, and his daughter looked older than sixteen when she wasn’t wearing school uniform. Maybe he ought to go with her….
“I’ll be ok, dad,” she assured him quickly before that idea took hold. “Sunset isn’t until nine o’clock. I’ll be all right in broad daylight with tons of people about.”
“All right,” he conceded. “But take your mum’s panic alarm. And make sure you’re mobile’s properly charged.”
That was an easy enough compromise if it let her have a few hours to herself on a spring evening in Paris. She popped next door to pick up the panic alarm and then hurried downstairs before he changed his mind.
It was a perfect spring evening to be somewhere as fantastic as Paris. The sun was still warm. The sky was clear. The roads were a little quieter than they were earlier in the day and there were less people about. She crossed the Quai Voltaire, pausing to look at the postcards and prints of Parisian views sold at a kiosk by the embankment wall, then she went down a set of steps that brought her onto the quiet, cobbled Port des Saints Pères, a footpath that ran along the edge of the Seinne itself, below the main road, away from the traffic.
There were trees here and there, creating pleasant dappled pools of light and shade and harbouring birds who twittered away nicely with the traffic noises safely above them. Rani walked along happily, admiring the view across the river of the L'Ecole du Louvre, a college for art history and archaeology right next to the Louvre itself, the perfect place for anyone with an interest in such things.
It was a pleasant walk, and she enjoyed it for itself for a little while. She only turned ‘on’ the Eiffel Tower as she approached the short tunnel under the Pont du Carrousel. There were a couple of homeless people huddled under grubby sleeping bags between the arches and she felt a tiny bit nervous walking past them. She heard their thoughts, though. One of them was just thinking about the shelter where he could get a meal before settling down to sleep for the night. The other one was thinking about hitch-hiking home to Lyons, where he had family who would still take him in. She hoped he decided to do that.
Out in the light again she came to a stretch of the path where what looked like dredgers and work barges for keeping the river clean were moored to little jetties accessed by short gangways. It was very functional and not much to look at, and she moved quickly along until she was near the Pont des Arts and it became more touristy again. Here, there was another barge, but this one was prettily painted and had trees and shrubs on its decks as well as chairs and tables. She realised it was a floating restaurant.
It wasn’t very busy yet, and it looked like an interesting place to stop for a while. She walked up the gangway and was pleased when the maitre-d called her mademoiselle and showed her to a seat near the prow of the barge. She ordered coffee and croissants. They were brought by a handsome young waiter dressed all in black who smiled warmly at her. She was away from her parents and feeling grown up and sophisticated again. She sipped the coffee and ate the crumbly, buttery croissant with a dessert fork without getting crumbs all over herself and glanced around at the other customers. It was still early, yet. Only a few people were eating anything other than croissants or cakes, and they were only on their starters, yet. There wasn’t much alcohol to be seen, yet, either. She didn’t feel out of place with coffee.
There were three couples who looked as if they were dating. One of them was two women who were holding hands over the table. There were also a few men and women who were on their own, perhaps waiting for friends to arrive, or hoping to make friends later in the evening.
Rani turned the top of the Eiffel Tower charm slowly. The thoughts of the people around her came ‘on’. She turned it a little further, and moved her arm so that the charm was pointing towards the all female couple. Yes, it could be directionalised. She could focus on one particular thinker. Those two women were definitely in love with each other. She listened only for a little while then moved her hand away towards one of the other couples. Again, it was true love on both sides.
The third couple were less perfect. The woman was thinking about somebody else. She was trying to find a way of breaking off with the man who had brought her to dinner on a barge on the River Seinne. Rani thought there was something not quite right about that. Any man who took her to dinner on a barge on the Seinne would have her vote. But even at sixteen she knew that relationships were complicated. There must be more to it than that. And it was none of her business.
She decided to leave the couples alone and focussed on the single people. The man in the corner with a bright green cocktail in a long glass was waiting for his girlfriend to arrive. No, Rani amended – his boyfriend. The man by the bar with what looked like a glass of vodka but was actually a small glass of lemonade was a plain clothes officer from the Police Nationale. He was watching a furtive looking man with thinning hair and a badly fitting suit who was on his third whiskey. The man was a diamond smuggler who was carrying a consignment of gems. He was waiting for a phone call before moving on. The policeman was waiting to follow him and find out who he was taking the diamonds to, so they could both be arrested.
Well, that was their business, too, Rani decided. She turned her attention to a dark skinned young woman in a colourful cotton dress and cardigan and a silk headscarf around her hair. She focussed on her thoughts and was surprised to note that it was the Algerian chamber maid she had tuned into at the hotel earlier. Her name was Samia. She had finished her shift and put on a pretty dress to meet her boyfriend here on La Balle du Bond.
This was private stuff, too, but Rani felt as if it WAS her business. She had heard the girl’s thoughts earlier and now she was a witness to the date itself. She felt as if she was personally involved this time and it didn’t feel quite so intrusive as listening in on the other people.
Of course, that was nonsense, she told herself. She didn’t know Samia any more than she knew the other people. She worked at the hotel she and her parents were guests at, that was all.
But it felt like a bond, even if it was only a tiny one, and she kept focussing on her while she ordered another cup of coffee from the waiter.
She felt Samia’s excitement when a young man came up the steps from the lower deck and waved. Rani was impressed. He was quite good looking with brown eyes and reddish-brown hair. His hair was long enough for her dad to send him home from school with a note to get it cut. Rani suppressed a giggle at the idea.
Then she froze. She could read the boyfriend’s thoughts, and they weren’t romantic at all.
Her iphone rang. She was surprised. Nobody had rung since she left England. Clyde said he couldn’t afford to make international calls.
So she was doubly surprised to see that it was Clyde’s number. She answered it.
“This isn’t a good time, Clyde,” she said. “There’s something…”
“Yeah, but listen…” Clyde interrupted her. “I told Sarah Jane about the charm, and we went down to Bond Street, and you won’t believe this… there’s no shop. It’s still a closed down tanning salon. It’s really freaky. Mr Smith thinks there are traces of ion energy in the area which means…”
“Clyde,” Rani interrupted his interruption. “Ask Mr Smith what a Caxtarid is and why one of them should be trying to get a girl to go on a boat with him.”
There was a pause. Then the interactive screen on her Iphone burst into life. Mr Smith had sent the information directly to her.
“The Caxtarids (or Ke Caxtari) are humanoids with metallic red hair and eyes which they are known to conceal with wigs and contact lenses. Once a mighty race, they conquered whole planets, including Kapteyn 5, home of more than sixty sentient species including avians and butterfly-people. Most of the Caxtarids were wiped out by a virus originating on their home world of Caxtar, but a few rogue members of the race survive as scavengers, mainly specializing in the intergalactic slave trade. They should, on no account, be approached.”
“Rani, Sarah Jane wants to know why you want to know about these things. She said if you’ve found one you should stay well clear.”
“I can’t,” she answered. “He’s taking her downstairs. I’ve got to follow them…”
She couldn’t follow them straight away, because she had to pay for the coffee and croissants. But when she reached the Port des Saints Pères she could see Samia and the alien pretending to be a human just going under the Pont Des Arts.
She moved quickly, but not so quickly as to be running. They were already a good hundred yards ahead of her and she needed to keep them in her sights. He said he was taking her to a boat, and there were a lot of boats on this bank of the Seinne. She had to make sure she saw which one it was.
Apart from that, she didn’t have a plan. The Pont des Arts was only a footbridge. She was soon under it and moving along the Port de Conti. Samia and the alien were still ahead of her. The path was quiet. The only other person she saw was a man in a blue uniform who stepped out of a top deck cabin of a huge barge belonging to the Sapieurs Pompier – the fire brigade. He was watching her as she hurried past. She half thought of asking for his help. He was a professional, after all. But she wasn’t sure what she could say to him, and in any case, chasing after aliens wasn’t one of the duties of firemen, even in Paris.
Samia and the alien were close to the stone-built archway under Pont Neuf and she was still a long way back when they disappeared from her view. She started running, then stopped. There was a boat there, a sail-barge of black lacquer and deep reddish-brown wood. A brass plate said it was the Marie Jeanne. There wasn’t much to distinguish it from the other boats along the river except that she could hear lots of voices, frightened ones, all overlapping each other. There was no question of trying to focus on one of them. There were too many people thinking the same thing all at once.
The gangplank was up, but the boat was only a foot away from the river bank at the prow. She took a step back and then jumped, landing a little awkwardly among some sacks. She hid under them and waited to see if anyone came to look what the noise was. But they didn’t. She crouched low and moved around the river-ward side of the barge looking for a way into the cargo hold where the worried voices were coming from.
She found a door. It was bolted with four strong bolts, but not locked. She started to unfasten the bolts. The voices she could hear were even more terrified. They were all convinced it was the alien with eyes and hair like hot iron coming back. She wished she knew a way to reassure them.
She still had two more bolts to pull back when somebody grabbed her from behind. He was strong, but she fought back. Sarah Jane had taught her a couple of self-defence techniques that worked with virtually any biped species except Sontarans. As soon as she had a hand free she reached into her pocket and set off her mother’s panic alarm. She screamed, too, as loud as she could as she kicked and twisted and struggled against the red-eyed fiend with strangely pallid flesh and teeth that looked like a piranha’s. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the pompier running along the path. He was surprised by the appearance of the creature that she was fighting, but he still jumped onto the deck and wrestled the alien to the ground before two more of the Caxtarid came from the cabin, snarling with anger. The pompier fought them, too. Rani got stuck in, kicking and hitting, but the aliens were strong, and three of them against two humans were not good odds.
Then Rani heard the sound of a helicopter coming closer. It hovered directly overhead and she saw men abseiling down onto the boat. They were wearing soldier’s uniforms with what she recognised as U.N.I.T. insignia on them – the French section of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce.
The fight was soon over after that. The Caxtarid were arrested. The hold was opened and a dozen very scared young women were brought out into the evening sunlight, breathing deeply after being kept in a cramped, dark place since they were captured by the aliens. Samia was one of them. She was scared and upset but safe.
When things were calmer, the officer in command of the U.N.I.T. squad, a Major Pierre Lenoir walked with Rani, back along the river Seinne, past the fire barge where the Sapeurs Pompier waved and cheered her, under the Pont des Arts to where she had drunk coffee and eaten croissants and spotted the alien trying to abduct one more pretty young human girl to be sold for slavery on a strange planet far from Earth.
“It was very brave of you to try to help,” Lenoir told her in good English with a strong French accent. “The Police Nationale were aware of abductions in recent days, but it was never suspected that extra terrestrial influences were involved – at least not until we were alerted by our colleagues in London. It was a Mr Smith who was able to trace your location even from London and tell us where to find you, Mademoiselle Rani. He is an agent of U.N.I.T.?”
“Something like that,” Rani answered. “Anyway, I’m glad it all worked out.” They passed under the Pont du Carrousel and came, presently, to the steps up to Quai Voltaire. “This is me. I’ll be fine from here.”
“You are sure you don’t want me to explain to your father what has happened, and how brave you were in preventing a terrible thing from happening?”
“If you did, he would probably lock ME somewhere until I turn twenty-one,” Rani answered. “Best my dad doesn’t know anything about this. I’ve just got time to talk to my friends in London before we’re off on a coach trip around the illuminated sights of Paris.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your night, Mademoiselle Rani,” Lenoir said with a charming French smile. “And may we meet again under happier circumstances in the future.”
She said goodbye to him and hurried up the steps and across the main road to the hotel. Just before she reached her room she turned the Eiffel Tower on again and checked that her parents weren’t thinking about anything other than Paris by night. They were comfortingly oblivious to anything else.
“I didn’t know Mr Smith could trace people even in Paris,” she said to Sarah Jane over the Skype connection.
“That mysterious charm on your bracelet has some very unusual energy resonances,” Sarah Jane replied. “He was able to pinpoint your exact location from it. When you get home, though, you’d best let him analyse it fully. It might be dangerous. And I don’t like this idea of disappearing shops selling possibly alien technology. We’re going to have to investigate that, too.”
“Never a dull moment,” Rani said. “I just hope the rest of this weekend is alien free. I need a rest.”
Which was why she carefully detached the Eiffel Tower charm from her bracelet and left it on the dressing table before she got herself ready for Paris by Night.