Table of Contents
Chapter 25 appeared
in issue 147.
Chapter 26: Strasbourg, France
Toni slept soundly until Carla woke him at seven.
‘Oh ... hello, Carla.’
‘Good morning, Toni. Can you get ready quickly, please? We have a lot to do!’
Toni groaned, but dragged himself out of bed as requested. When he was dressed and alert, Carla continued.
‘We must make contact with Bernard Lamargue as soon as possible. We need to persuade him to co-operate with us. I want you to phone him on the number J-C gave us, and pretend to be an investigative journalist who has gained a thorough insight into Bernard’s double life. You must tell him that you are intending to publish everything you know, but you will look sympathetically on removing some of the worst evidence if he is willing to give you a little information.’
‘Do I really have to, Carla?’
‘I'm afraid so, Toni. Then you must instruct him to find out Hilde van Wostraap’s precise planned movements for the rest of the day ... and her mobile phone number, and her musical preferences. Warn him that he must do all this without alerting the lady herself, or anybody else — otherwise your revelations will be completely ruthless! And insist that you will phone back to collect this information at half-past nine precisely.’
Toni placed the call just after eight. Lamargue’s reaction was predictable, but Toni kept his silence, waiting for the man to agree to his demands.
After some thought, Bernard decided to conform. It would be no great trouble to gather the information being requested, and if that reduced the impact of any revelations, all well and good. The thing to do right now was to keep this damned journalist sweet for a little while. He could try and negotiate some further concessions once he was ready to deliver something ...
‘Very well ... I'll have what you want by nine-thirty. But I am admitting nothing!’
Toni ended the call.
‘It’s done, Carla.’
‘Bravo! I think you deserve some breakfast.’
* * *
Back in his room, Toni placed his second call.
‘I hope you are ready for me, monsieur.’
‘Yes,’ the bureaucrat answered. ‘I have obtained what you requested. But may we discuss things a little further? After all, you cannot expect me to simply hand this information over without any proof that you do have the evidence you claim to have about me. Even then, how could I be sure that you would remove some of it from this article you are threatening to publish ...?’
‘Monsieur Lamargue, I obviously did not make myself sufficiently clear. You will provide all three pieces of information to me, unconditionally, at once. In return, I promise to remove from my draft a number of references to long blonde wigs, particularly interesting items of clothing, and French politicians. There will be no bargaining. Now, the information, please ...’
Bernard knew he had no more cards left to play. His earlier, hurried attempt to trace the owner of the journalist’s phone had revealed a false name and address in the south of Italy, so he was reluctant to pursue the man’s identity any further, or to argue any harder. He would need to do some pre-emptive damage limitation as soon as the call was over ... and then just hope the man was bluffing, and was really only seeking access to van Wostraap. If that was the case, Bernard might never hear of him again ...
‘All right. But I am still admitting nothing. And I trust you to keep your promise.’
‘Of course I shall. I am a journalist. Now, please continue, monsieur ...’
So Bernard Lamargue revealed to Toni that Hilde’s schedule would keep her in the European Parliament building throughout that day and well into the early evening. The plenary session’s agenda did however include, between one and three in the afternoon, the usual two-hour break for lunch and personal business.
Then he supplied the number of Hilde’s personal mobile phone ... and he understood, from a friend of her personal assistant, that in her twenties the lady had particularly enjoyed the songs of Abba ...
‘Thank you, Monsieur Lamargue. If this information proves correct in every detail, you may expect considerable relief from your concerns over my plans to publish. But it will be wise for you to remain on your guard ...’
Toni switched off the phone. Carla was enthusiastically but silently applauding the undiscovered actor in him. He was simply perspiring a lot.
‘Bravo, Toni. Right ... let’s go for a nice long walk! Wherever you like, as long as it takes us past the Carousel and the Parliament Building ... and a music shop!’
* * *
They left the hotel, and straight away Toni spotted the Tourist Information Office, just around the corner. He popped in for a street plan of the city.
First they visited the Cathedral, and he enjoyed a good look at the intricacies of another venerable astronomical clock. Then they strolled down to the bank of the River Ill, and sat together for a few minutes on a bench in the Fishmarket Square while Carla issued her briefing on the plan for a lunch-time phone call to Hilde. When Toni was comfortable with his role and his script, they wandered back towards the shops, and he stopped to pick up an early version of Abba’s Greatest Hits.
‘Now ...’ he said, consulting his map, ‘... Place Gutenberg is just over there ...’
And they discovered the huge, beautiful Carousel which dominated the square and was to be the place for Carla’s rendezvous with Jean-Christophe that evening.
It was now definitely time for a beer, and they stopped for a while at the Pilier des Anges. Then they made a more purposeful move towards the north-east.
They passed the Hôtel de Ville, and Toni took a look round the courtyard and was fascinated to see dozens of current, hand-typed notices of Marriage Banns, pinned up inside tired old display cases. He was convinced nobody else ever came to read them.
‘Look, Carla ... this is how we begin the formal process of continuing our species!’
Carla smiled, and held her virtual tongue.
They moved on, past the impressive Opera building, across the Place de la République, and up the long, leafy Avenue of Peace. Then they came to the lavish and modern Centre for Music and Conferences. Toni had a quick look round and was very impressed.
‘I’d love to perform here one day!’
‘I really hope you will, Toni,’ said Carla, ‘Now, it’s nearly one o’clock — I suggest you pick up a sandwich at the cafeteria. But don’t eat it yet ... we have a phone call to make!’
Toni followed the path of least resistance, bought his future lunch, and then followed Carla’s instructions to move back out into the grounds and sit down on yet another bench.
* * *
‘OK, Toni, it’s one-fifteen. Time to contact Hilde. And by the way ... you’ll need to quote a password straight away. It’s Silence. We are hoping that’s not a coded message telling Hilde to say nothing. There’s not much we can do about it, if it is ...’
Toni held the phone up close to Carla, so that she could hear, and dialled Hilde’s number.
‘Hello? Mevr. van Wostraap? Good afternoon, and ... Silence.’
‘My goodness!’ Her English was perfect. ‘You are not Jeremy. But you must be one of our group! What is your name please ...’
‘My name, madam, is unimportant. You may call me Toni if you wish. My colleague, who is with me, is known only as Carla. We have very recently joined the group — and we have some information which we believe you will be very interested in receiving ...’
‘One moment ... I need to make my excuses ... please hold on while I move to a more private corner ...’ ... ‘Hello? ... Yes, I can talk now ... and I do understand there are some new members. But first I need to confirm that this call is bona fide. Please tell me precisely what type of headgear our friend was wearing when he gave you the new password...’
Very clever, thought Toni to himself. Fortunately, he could remember the answer. ‘It was a green fishing hat, madam!’
Hilde’s sigh of relief was clearly audible. Then her caution returned.
‘But he would not have given you my phone number!’
‘No, madam,’ said Toni. ‘Let me explain ...’
And he told the redoubtable Hilde that he and Carla (who spoke up at one point to introduce herself) were both freelance journalists, were very sympathetic to her cause, had both been recently accepted into CAMRUTH, and had obtained her phone number by putting pressure on a certain gentleman who was aware of a conspiracy developing against her.
‘What do you mean — a conspiracy?’
‘We should not discuss details over the phone, Mevr. van Wostraap. We must see you in person — today. The timing is critical for our publication deadline. There are two very important topics we need to cover.
‘Firstly, in our investigations we have discovered that certain people are planning to fabricate evidence which would destroy your reputation, unless you bow to pressure which they are about to bring to bear upon you ... pressure to keep your silence on a particular subject. We can help you prepare to fight them.
‘Secondly, we have just finished researching and drafting an exclusive set of articles (a real “scoop”, believe me!) on that same subject, which we know is very dear to your heart. Our findings should give you great encouragement and ammunition for your cause. We want to share that information with you, and ask you to corroborate it.’
Fear, outrage and temptation wormed their separate ways into Hilde’s honest heart.
‘Very well. I must obviously meet you. But I shall have to ask for a police guard to authenticate you when you arrive ...’
‘Oh no, madam — that would compromise us all, as well as our exposé! In fact, neither of us is carrying a journalist’s ID ... that would be far too risky. We must meet with you in secret. You must trust us ... surely our CAMRUTH password and our personal acquaintance with its founder are enough ...?’
‘I’m afraid they are not! I must check with Jeremy straight away. Call me back in ten minutes ...’
The line went dead. Carla smiled and said ‘Good job, Toni ... fingers crossed!’
Then they both waited rather less than patiently. At last he hit “Redial”.
‘Is that Toni? Very well ... I am satisfied. But our meeting will have to be very late this evening. We have parliamentary debates scheduled through until midnight, although I am not planning to stay until the end. I will expect you at my apartment at eleven o’clock. Here is the address ...’
Toni looked up the street name on his map (‘It’s on our way back into town later, Carla’), and was finally free to devour his sandwich.
Then they walked across to the striking building of the European Parliament. Another of Carla’s meeting places could now be fixed. And once Toni was satisfied that he had seen the amazing structure from all possible angles of the vast interior courtyard, they moved off and sauntered down the canal behind it, enjoying even better views of the edifice across the wide basin formed by the convergence of two waterways.
Then they came upon the Court of Human Rights.
‘What an uninspiring façade for a building of such importance!’ Toni exclaimed.
Carla was forced to agree.
And when they arrived at the Palace of the Council of Europe, Toni was even more vehement. ‘Now that is what I call a façade!’
Carla was still struggling with her ability to distinguish between honest sentiment and irony. So in this particular case, she would never be quite sure of Toni’s true intent.
Soon afterwards, they located Hilde van Wostraap’s apartment building on the Allée de la Robertsau. Now Carla could relax — she was, at last, all set for her several imminent engagements ...
They strolled slowly back towards the city centre, as the sun and the temperature both went steadily down. They crossed the Faux Rempart canal and wandered along the bank of the central island, then began to wind left and right along the small streets hiding behind the mass of the Cathedral and the Seminary.
Just after five, Toni stopped for a beer in the Place du Marché Gayot.
When it had arrived, and they were both sitting comfortably amidst the busy outdoor tables, he plucked up his courage again.
‘Carla ... you did promise you would explain what you meant the other day when you said “All Domans are female” ...’
‘Yes, I did. But are you sure you want me to?’
‘Yes, Carla. I really do.’
‘All right, Toni, I’ll try ... but this may not be easy for you ...’
‘Our scientists know a great deal about the biological history of Dome.
‘Long ago, our world was populated, as yours is today, with males and females of many different species.
‘But over countless millions of your years, the critical features in the make-up of the males — the things that defined their very maleness — slowly began to deteriorate. Eventually, for most species, those features decayed away completely — and with them went the males themselves. Of course, those entire species then simply died out.
‘The controlling species (we have been calling ourselves Domans for you, Toni), became fully aware that this was happening, of course, long before those traumatic final millennia for the majority of life forms. So they researched and discovered many different possible solutions: ways to adjust the nature of the male, so as to avoid dependence on the critical, slowly failing element. And they were able to rescue many species from extinction.
‘But the political and moral implications of implementing such a change across the whole of our own species were enormous. So the issue was repeatedly avoided and shelved — and things just got progressively worse.
‘However, as the outlook darkened for the male, the Doman female began to appreciate and relish her increasing confidence and power, and to reconsider her true need for the male. This led, of course, to huge and lengthy further debate.
‘To cut a very long story very short, Toni, it was finally decided, once the males had lost all the will to object and any ability to implement a solution themselves, to allow them to softly fade away.
‘The techniques for artificially administered fertilisation of female egg by female egg were then perfected, and were made not only more convenient and pain-free, but positively pleasurable! And the new order, of course, was now two female parents, and female children ... every time.
‘And we must not forget the positive side effects. I have made no mention of the terrible combats, local and inter-regional, that had raged on Dome for most of its history. But what had always instigated and sustained all that suffering and waste? The answer, of course, was Doman maleness, the driving force of the never-ending spiral of lust and bravado, greed and war.
‘In the new order, physical war itself died away quickly ... although there was plenty of simple female pride and self-improving greed around to keep the New Domans gossiping and bickering, and sometimes even resorting to mild slaps! But with less and less of the energy of the species directed towards real battles, immense leaps were then made in the social and technological civilising of our world.
‘One other thing happened soon after this (in terms of the time spans involved!), although we do not believe it was causally related. By a chance of fortune which you alone can understand, Toni, we were taught to know each other’s minds, and to communicate in thought alone. So, like the Doman male a little earlier, the Domans’ use of speech soon died out as well. Now there could be no double-talking.
‘Ever since, our disputes have always resolved themselves through total openness and a simple world constitution, based on majority Consensus and the funds and flexibility needed to adapt to regular desires for change. It does not always work perfectly, of course — small power bases arise from time to time, usually associated with some hankering after a little more of a particular Doman resource — but this is once again driven by simple selfishness and greed, Toni, not futile machismo.
‘And we adapt to those occasional events as we need to, and we thrive.’
Toni, as usual, needed to think about all of this for some time. Finally he sighed and offered a reaction.
‘Well, I am surprised you have often seemed so interested in me ...’
‘Are you really, Toni? Are you really? Put yourself in my shoes. Does the opportunity for a little private investigation into another way of life not seem at all attractive? If it is any consolation, I have very much enjoyed getting to know a few men — and one in particular ...’
Carla waited for a couple of minutes, but Toni said nothing more, so she stood up and left him to rest and digest.
‘See you at eleven, Toni. Don’t be late ... and don’t forget the music!’
He smiled ruefully, and waved to her as she walked away. Then he ordered another beer, and had a little snooze.
* * *
At seven o’clock he was vaguely alert again. So he went in search of dinner, and found himself back at the Carousel. Then he spotted Le Gutenberg restaurant, liked what he saw, and went inside.
An hour later he began to hunt for a music bar. He was delighted when he immediately found one, Le Bistro Jazz Club, literally just around the corner. Then he was downhearted to discover that it only had live bands on Fridays and Saturdays. But wait ... “Jam Sessions every Wednesday”. Ah, no ... today was a Tuesday! But if he was still in Strasbourg tomorrow evening, he knew where he would end up ...
He resumed his search, but it was either too early in the evening or Strasbourg was not the place for music bars. He suspected it was the latter. At nine-thirty he gave up and stopped off for another beer ...