Pausert was stoical throughout all of this. Goth, who knew him well, could see that the boy was quite nervous despite his stolid expression. He just wasn’t letting the police see it. Well, that was hardly surprising. She just wished that she could tell him that she was here, and that she’d see that he was all right.

A few minutes later, she discovered that she was not alone in her task of shepherding the young Pausert. His mother was quite a fearsome one-woman army herself.

“He happened to be in the same street as a car crash and you arrest him? He can’t even drive yet! Anyway, where would he have got this vehicle from? Tell me that! Are you accusing my son of theft?”

“Uh. We’re still following up on that,” admitted the desk-policeman. “The vehicle was hired from Porklotta vehicle hire. But we’ve been unable to trace the ID of the person who signed for it.”

“And who presumably was an adult, produced a driver’s license, and paid a deposit,” snapped Pausert’s mother. “Even if my boy had the money, no one could take him for an adult. And where in Patham’s name would he get a license that matched his ret-ID? They would have checked that, you know, or you should know, if you weren’t a bumbling idiot.”

“Who are you calling a bumbling idiot, ma’am?” demanded the bumbling idiot, drawing himself up.

Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll leave you to think about that one. It might take you a week or two. In the meanwhile I am taking my boy home. You have no reason to keep him here. I gather that there was somebody else in the truck, and that they have been taken to the hospital. Why don’t you go and check on their ID? They can probably tell you what happened.”

“Uh… As to that, the patient seems to have absconded,” admitted the desk sergeant.

“Oh. And I suppose that was somehow caused by my son, although you had him here.”

“Well, there is also the matter of the starter-bar from the patrol vehicle…”

She raised her eyebrows. “And just what is Pausert supposed to have done with that? From what you told me on the telephone you found him at the scene of the accident. I presume that the patrol vehicle managed to arrive after that. Or did it cause the accident?”

“Of course the vehicle arrived after the accident, ma’am. But we believe he managed to make the starter-bar go missing.”

“But how did he do that? Turn himself invisible and walk around the vehicle and snatch it out? Put it in his pocket? Toss it down a drain?” she said sarcastically. “This is all about my uncle isn’t it? Well, Pausert isn’t Threbus. He’s just a very ordinary little boy. I wish you would leave him alone. Now. He’s coming home with me.”

And, a few minutes later, after a little bit more verbal bludgeoning, Pausert’s mother proved correct. Goth was very relieved, and decided to use their bathroom before following her. It was a little childish to express her relief by blocking the basins in the officers bathroom, and removing the washer that to allow the faucet to seal. She left quietly in no-shape.

There was a startled exclamation, and Goth looked back to see an officer staring at the row of wet footprints that she was leaving behind her. Sometimes behaving like the Leewit just wasn’t worth it.

Goth ran for it. Fortunately, the officer seemed more stunned than quick on the uptake, and she was out of the door before he had time to do more than make incoherent noises and point.

Outside she ran to a nearby piece of public parkland. The grass didn’t show wet footprints, and in no-shape she was happy enough to ignore the sign that said that she should keep off it. Two of Nikkeldepain’s constabulary did follow the rapidly drying footprints.

“Must have taken their shoes off, whoever it was,” said one, scratching his head, looking at the sign and then peering at the pavement. It appeared that if one lived on Nikkeldepain, one took rules very seriously.

“Wonder where the water came from?” said the other.

Goth discovered the second problem with behaving like the Leewit. She had to stuff her own sleeve in her mouth to stop from betraying herself. After a few moments, the answer plainly dawned on the two and they turned to run back to the station. It was then that she realized the third problem. She had lost sight of young Pausert and his mother. She was in a strange city, on a strange world with absolutely no idea how to even start looking for him. She’d have to find him before those others got to him. And then she’d have to deal with them.

Right now, however, wet feet or not, she desperately needed to eat and rest. But could she afford to do either or rather immediately try and find Pausert?

She decided, after a few moments consideration, that while he was in the custody of his mother, he was probably reasonably safe. Whoever was trying to kidnap him without witnesses would probably not risk it while his mother was with him. Goth slipped behind in a public restroom and undid the no-shape. That at least saved her some energy. She went off in search of food and ideas of where she could find Pausert.

She got help with both from the sausage seller. “Aren’t you the kid,” he said, in friendly tone, “who was here with the boy from the botanical place? The Threbus Institute?”

He seemed no more than idly curious. “Yes,” admitted Goth, “but he’s gone home now.”

“I used to have a stand near there. Saw the kid most days back then. Nice polite boy, not like some of the rich riff-raff at the academy. I hadn’t seen him for a while.”

“Oh,” said Goth artlessly. “And where did your stand used to be?”

“Pilking Street. Over toward the old power station.”

Goth set out, amed with a street name, a direction, and the energy from digesting some greasy sausage. The lights were coming on across Nikkeldepain City. It was a rather flat and uninspiring place. In the distance beyond her destination she could see the trails of multicolored fairy lights flickering seductively from the lattice ship. That called to her, but her duty now was to find and protect Pausert.

So she studiously avoided thinking about the lattice ship, about the journey they’d had across the Empire with the Petey B. It was like not thinking of pink Fanderbags.

She was so busy not thinking about it that she nearly walked into the woman whom she’d last seen wearing a cone shaped blonde wig. She had curly auburn hair now, but it was the same woman. She also plainly recognized Goth.

“Hello little girl,” she said, clutching Goth’s arm. “You look thirsty. Can I get you something to drink?”

Goth shook the hand off. She hated being called little girl at the best of times. Her look made the woman start back. “No,” she said coldly.

And then it occurred to her that she might be able to extract some information from her. Best to play it cautiously, for now. “I am not thirsty. Thank you.”

“It’s very late for you to be out. It’s not really safe for a young girl to be out the street after dark.”

Huh. Not with you around, thought Goth. But, in general, she thought Nikkeldepain was probably one of the safest worlds she’d ever been on. It was the kind of place where even the thought of crime was just too complicated.

“I’m fine. I live near here,” she said crossly. “And they’re expecting me. Goodbye.” She walked off, around the corner, and then used light shift to make herself look like an elderly man she’d seen earlier.

A few seconds later the woman appeared, talking into her wrist communicator. She looked up when she saw the lightshifted Goth. “Hello gramps,” she said curtly. “Have you seen a young girl come this way. Brown eyes. Sharpish chin?”

Goth didn’t want to try imitating an old man’s voice as well as his appearance. The more klatha powers of imitation you used, the harder it was to do each of them properly — and the energy requirement was exponential, not simply additive. So she just pointed toward a side street and continued shuffling on her way.

The woman did a rapid U-turn and was back around the corner in a few seconds. Goth followed in no-shape. Now, maybe, she could get close enough to listen in on the women’s communicator conversation.

“… snooping around here,” said the woman. Goth listened but could not hear the reply. “The reason you can’t find her on the police records system could just be that she’s working with them, Mirko.”

Her informant replied.

“Well. That leaves the lattice ship,” said the woman, “although why the circus people would have an interest in the target is beyond me. I admit it’s good cover, though. Look, I think tonight is off. There’s only one window and unless you’ve got the Rubilon three to dope them –”

Mirkon plainly interrupted. “Don’t make your problems mine!” said the woman crossly, getting into a parked aircar.