by Brian K. Asbury
“You have heard the charges of which you stand accused,” said the judge, “ranging as they do from attempted murder and kidnapping to causing actual bodily harm, threatening behavior, illegal entry into this country, and sundry offenses under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Do you wish to plead each charge separately or enter a single plea to cover all charges?”
The tall blond man in the dock smiled faintly. “I wish to enter a single blanket plea, Your Honor,” he said.
The judge’s eyes narrowed. “Count Vertigo, you are not in the United States of America. Here in England, the correct form of address to a high court judge is ‘my lord.'”
Vertigo bowed slightly. “My humble apologies, My Lord. I wish to plead ‘not guilty’ to all charges.”
“Thank you. Then we may proceed.” The judge paused, glaring out at two individuals in the court who were engaged in an animated conversation. “That is, we may proceed if we are not boring your barrister to the point where she loses interest in the proceedings! Miss Pilkington? Would you care to enlighten us as to why you and your companion feel it necessary to talk among yourselves while the court is in session?”
Amanda Pilkington, queen’s counsel, looked up. Adjusting her wig, she rose to her feet. “I am sorry, My Lord. Something has just come to light which has a vital bearing on this case. This gentleman…” She indicated the man she had been conversing with. “…is from the Vlatavan Embassy.”
“Do I wish to know that, Miss Pilkington?” asked the judge.
“I believe so, My Lord. May I be allowed to present you with the document which this gentleman has just brought to me?”
The judge scowled. “Very well.” He nodded to the clerk of court, who took the document from Amanda Pilkington and passed it up to him. “This had better indeed be relevant, Miss Pilkington. I do not like having my time wasted.”
He scanned the first few lines of the document, and his jaw dropped. Hurriedly, he scanned through the rest of it. He looked up again and stared at Amanda incredulously. “Are they serious?”
Amanda smiled. “Very serious indeed, My Lord. The government of Vlatava has granted Count Vertigo diplomatic status. Which means, of course, that he has diplomatic immunity and cannot be tried for any crimes allegedly committed in this country!”
“Are you sure, doctor?” asked Rhea Jones, her voice trembling with fear and worry.
The doctor removed the earpieces of his stethoscope and gave her a reassuring smile. “I am totally sure, Miss Jones. By the way, you can get dressed again. I have finished examining you.”
Rhea numbly went back behind the screen and proceeded to put her clothes back on. “How could this have happened? I thought I was, y’know, just putting on a bit of weight. I wasn’t eating too well back home in the States. I thought I was just sorta overcompensating.”
Dr. Bhambra seated himself behind his desk and began to scribble some notes on his pad. “I’m afraid that was just wishful thinking on your part. Now, let me see — you are an American citizen, are you not?”
“Yeah,” said Rhea, adjusting her shades as she emerged from behind the screen. “But I’m, y’know, working over here. I got all the right papers an’ all.” She didn’t add that she had entered the country with no papers at all — in fact, with nothing other than her Lodestone costume. The documents had been obtained for her by Scotland Yard so that she could operate as a member of their officially sanctioned super-hero team, the Paladins.
“I’m sure you have. I wasn’t suggesting anything untoward.” The doctor stared at her. “Miss Jones, is there something wrong with your eyes that you would like me to look at for you?”
“N-no,” Rhea stammered, pushing the glasses on more securely. “It’s just, like, fashion, y’know?”
Dr. Bhambra shook his head. “I’m making you an appointment at the local clinic. Once they’ve given you a more thorough examination, they’ll be able to give you more information. However, you do realize that this is going to mean some major adjustments in your life.”
“Y-yeah. Yeah, I know, Doc.”
“Have you anyone…? I mean, any family, friends, so forth…?”
“I don’t have family,” she replied. “My dad was killed in an accident in the States some years back. I got friends. Some. Sorta colleagues, you could say.”
“I see you’ve given your address as Wordenshire Castle. Are you working there?”
“Y-yeah,” she replied. “Sorta.”
“And do your employers know about… ah…?”
“No!” said Rhea hurriedly. “I haven’t told ’em yet. I… I wasn’t sure. I mean, I wanted to make sure before…”
“I see. Is this likely to affect your terms of employment there?”
“I dunno. I hadn’t thought about it.”
The doctor sighed. “Well, you’re going to have to think about it now. And most carefully.” He opened a drawer in his desk and produced some leaflets. “Here’s some information that will be of use to you in the coming months — including a pamphlet about what you should do if this invalidates your terms of employment. You do realize that you might have to return to the USA if your visa states you have to be in gainful employment, don’t you?”
“Yeah… no… I mean, I hadn’t thought about that, either. Oh, geez, what a mess!”
“There, there,” said Dr. Bhambra, patting her hand reassuringly. “I’m sure it will all work out. But you must tell your employers soon. The longer you leave it, the more difficult you could make things for yourself.”
“Well, come back and see me after you’ve been to the clinic and had some more tests. Good morning.”
“Right.” Rhea rose from her seat, still feeling numb. She was hardly aware of leaving the office or walking back through the waiting room. She found herself standing outside the health centre, drizzly rain dripping on her face, as she contemplated what would happen when she broke the news to Percy and the others.
“An’ worse,” she said aloud to herself, “what are they gonna say when I tell ’em who the father is?”
“I don’t believe this!” Sandie Bremmer said. “Diplomatic immunity? Vertigo claims diplomatic immunity after all he did and tried to do?”
“Calm down, Sandie,” said Ken Hanson, putting down his phone. “He might not get away with it. I’ve just spoken to the prime minister, and she’s up in arms about this new development. She’s told me categorically that no way will Count Vertigo be allowed to stay in the U.K. if he is granted diplomatic license.”
“Big deal!” the Afro-Caribbean forensic scientist snorted, pacing up and down the office. “So he gets deported back to Vlatava. Wow! How terrible for him! That’s ‘not getting away with it’? In a pig’s eye it is!”
Hanson rubbed his eyes. He got up from his desk and walked to the window. “Sandie, I hate this as much as you do, but there’s nothing we can do.”
“I’m damn sure there’s something Maggie Thatcher could do if she really wanted…”
“No, there isn’t,” Hanson said, turning from the window, taking her gently by the shoulders, and steering her into a chair. “If Vlatava really insists on Vertigo having diplomatic status, the only thing open to her is to deport him. To do anything else would invoke a major international incident.”
“Oh. So we piss off the Vlatavans. Another big deal, Ken. My Aunt Lucy has a bigger back garden than that entire country!”
“Yes, but your Aunt Lucy’s garden isn’t a signatory of the Warsaw Pact, Sandie. We ‘piss off’ Vlatava, as you put it, and we do the same to the Russians. And in the current political climate, with the Cold War thawing out fast, that’s the last thing any Western government wants.”
“Yes, but — oh, damn it all to hell!” Sandie fell silent.
Hanson crossed back to his desk and pressed the intercom button. “Judith, send in a pot of tea for two, please. Make it extra strong. Thanks.” He faced Sandie again. “There really is nothing we can do about it, you know. Unless Vlatava upholds our protests — which is unlikely in the extreme — then Vertigo is going to walk.”
He sat down again. “It doesn’t help that you and the other Paladins trespassed into their country back in February, of course. Oh, I know you were chasing hostile alien invaders, but the Vlatavan government apparently feel that you should have left it to the Rocket Red Brigade, who at least were authorized to be there.”
“The blasted Rocket Reds didn’t even know what was going on! They thought we were the invaders!”
“Exactly. It was handled very badly, Sandie. You treated the matter as a personal vendetta instead of going through proper channels and arranging to work with your Soviet opposite numbers. That’s how they see it, anyway.”
“The desk jockeys who handle the ‘proper channels’ would probably have dithered or just ignored it, and in the meantime the Dominators would have dropped their defoliating bomb and turned Great Britain into Great Desert. There wasn’t time to go through Soviet bureaucracy, Ken. You know that.”
Hanson shrugged. “Yes, I do, and I understand. But making the Vlatavans, Gorbachev, or even our own government understand it is an altogether trickier proposition.” His secretary entered with a tea tray and set it down on the desk. “We’re just going to have to live with it, I’m afraid,” he said as the girl left. “Your mission to Vlatava was successful, but it was handled clumsily, and this is the result.”
“Childish petulance,” grumped Sandie. “We didn’t play by their rules, so they get their revenge by stopping us making sure Vertigo gets his just deserts!”
“That’s the way politics works, unfortunately,” said Hanson as he poured the tea. “Two lumps, isn’t it?” he said, his hand poised over the sugar bowl.
She nodded. “And make it black and very, very strong, Ken. I’m going to have to go back to the Paladins and explain this to them. They’re not going to like it one little bit!”