Kay adjusted her red-rimmed glasses and squinted through the viewfinder of the camcorder. She focused in on a patch of red flowers, then panned up and to the left. The image of a young woman dressed in a brightly patterned skirt and a denim jacket appeared. Tawny-auburn curls streamed out from under the wide-brimmed black fedora she wore on her head. Kay gave the thumbs-up sign and hit the record button. Her older sister Marlaina began speaking.
"Welcome to the continuing adventures of Marlaina and Kay in Europe. Mom and Dad, can you guess where we are now?" She paused for a moment. "Don't know? Well, here's a clue." Kay pressed the wide-angle button and the brown metal framework of the Eiffel Tower came into view over Marlaina's shoulder. "Put that encyclopedia away, Dad -- we're in Paris!" She flung her arms wide. "Yes, Paris. The City of Lights; the City of Love; the...the, uh, the capital of France!" She smiled weakly and shrugged. "Anyway, we'll be staying here for a couple of days, then heading south toward Monaco. But right now we're going up to the top of La Tour Eiffel. See you there!"
Kay stopped recording and lowered the camcorder. "Nicely done, Lainie," she said. "Now how far up do you want to go? I heard it's cheaper to just go to the first stage."
"Come on now, sis, live a little!" Marlaina replied. "If we go up at all, it may as well be to the top." She patted her purse. "I think we'll be able to afford it." Kay shrugged and put the camcorder back into its carrying case. They joined the line for the elevators.
Twenty minutes later they were on the observation deck at the top of the Tower, admiring the magnificent view of the city along with the other tourists. After taking pictures and video in each direction, the girls caught the next elevator back down.
"That was really something," Marlaina said as they walked back out into the square beneath the Tower. "Let's go back up -- this time taking the stairs."
Kay looked at her incredulously. "You've got to be kidding! That's- -one thousand, six hundred fifty-two steps."
Marlaina laughed and lightly punched her sister in the arm.
"Don't have a conniption, sis." She tousled Kay's ponytail. "Anyway, what do we do next: visit the Louvre? The Arc de Triomphe? Notre Dame Cathedral? We're also right next to the bateaux mouche dock -- does a river cruise sound good to you?"
"Why don't we rest for a bit, then decide," Kay replied. Marlaina agreed, and the two of them headed over to the nearest bench. Kay started to sit, but Marlaina stopped her. "What is it?" asked Kay. Marlaina indicated the next bench over; it was occupied by three disheveled-looking old men. From the way they were laughing and slapping each other on the back, it was obvious they had been drinking. Marlaina took hold of her sister and started to lead her away, but one of the old men spotted them and shuffled over. "S'il vous plait," he said, holding out his cap.
Marlaina shook her head and strode away, her sister in tow. The old man stared after them for a few moments, muttered something under his breath and rejoined his companions.
Marlaina warily glanced back. Another man had gotten up and was working his way down the line of tourists that stood waiting for elevator tickets. "You'd think that in a city like this...."
"We might have given him a little something," said Kay.
"It's best not to mess with those types," Marlaina replied.
They sat themselves down on a bench at the opposite side of the square, where the crowd of people milling about obscured their view of the old men. Marlaina took off her purse and set it down beside her. Kay unshouldered the camcorder bag and stowed it under the bench.
"You thirsty?" asked Kay. "I saw a Contact Orange stand a little way down the street. I'll get us some, if you want."
"Sounds great." Marlaina fished a few coins out of her purse and handed it to her sister.
"Be right back," Kay called over her shoulder as she departed.
Marlaina settled back and relaxed. She looked up at the green netting that was strung between the pillars of the Tower and wondered if it was meant to catch anyone unfortunate enough to be blown over the railing. Turning her attention to the people that filled the square, she tried to pick out the foreign tourists from the Parisians. She discovered it was easier to spot the Americans; many of them dressed and acted like they were at Disneyland or something.
A voice over to the left of her said, "Excuse me, is anyone sitting here?" Marlaina turned her head and saw a young man dressed in jeans and a khaki shirt standing there. He had an expensive-looking camera slung over his shoulder.
"Not at all -- be my guest," Marlaina said, gesturing to the space beside her. He smiled gratefully and sat down. She watched as he unloaded the camera and put in a new roll of film.
"Nice camera," she said, leaning over to look at it.
"Thanks," he replied, looking up at her. "Nice hat."
Marlaina giggled. "Let me take a wild guess -- you're not from around here, are you?"
"No, but neither are you, I take it," he replied, grinning.
"Is this your first time in Paris?"
Marlaina nodded. "Just got in today."
"Traveling by yourself?"
"With my sister. You won't believe how long we saved up for this trip! Almost two years of part-time jobs. But it's been really worth it. We spent about a week in England, we're going to stay another week in France, then we're going to decide whether to hit Spain or Italy. She wants to see Barcelona, but I've always been curious about the Leaning Tower. You ever been to Pisa?"
He admitted he hadn't, and told her that this was his first vacation since he took a job at an insurance firm a year and a half ago. Marlaina told him that she had just graduated from college and had decided to travel before looking for a job.
"How about your sister?" he asked.
"She's a sophomore at Ohio University. What state are you from?"
He didn't answer, as he seemed to be looking past her. Marlaina followed his gaze and saw two shabbily-dressed children, a boy and a girl, standing before her. The boy wore an old blue jacket and clutched a small bouquet of plastic-wrapped roses; the girl, almost certainly his sister, had on a faded lavender dress under her fake-animal-fur coat.
Wordlessly, the boy thrust the roses at Marlaina, obviously intending for her to buy one. She shook her head and turned back to the young man.
"I'll bet you must have met a lot of interesting people in England," he said. Before Marlaina could reply, a pair of casually- dressed young women came up to them. One of them, a petite redhead, said, "There you are! We thought you'd been kidnapped or something. Come on, the bus is leaving."
"Nice meeting you," the young man said to Marlaina as he got up. He waved as he left with the girls.
"Yeah," Marlaina sighed, "a lot of interesting people." She sat back and saw that the boy and girl hadn't left. "I don't want any," she said. "Non."
The boy made no move to leave. He offered the roses to her again. "Look, I told you I don't want any," she said, louder this time. "Allez- vous-en!"
The girl took the hint and scurried off. Her brother followed a moment later, a sad look on his face.
A few minutes later Kay returned, carrying two styrofoam cups of freshly-squeezed orange juice. "What kept you?" said Marlaina. "There was a line," Kay replied, handing her a cup.
After they had finished the drinks, they decided to take the river cruise since it was closest. As they stood to leave, Kay frowned and said, "Where's your purse, Lainie?"
"Right here." Marlaina looked down at the bench and saw with a shock that the purse was gone. "Oh geez, no!" She frantically searched the area around the bench, with no result. "It was right next to me, I swear! I never left it."
"Gods, Lainie -- did anyone come up to you, like one of those old men?"
"No," said Marlaina. She then told her about the young man and the two children. "The guy couldn't have taken it--besides, why would he? It had to have been those kids." She snapped her fingers. "Of course! That was the whole scam. The boy distracted me with the flowers while the girl grabbed my purse. Nice and simple."
Kay threw up her hands. "How could you be so careless, Lainie! There goes our passports, our hotel key, your camera, your credit card, our traveler's checks--what the hell are we going to do now?"
"Hey, come on sis, don't have a conniption," Marlaina said, trying to sound reassuring. "You still have the two hundred dollars in your money belt, right? And there's the five hundred back at the hotel. We can still get along."
"But without our passports, it'll be a major hassle getting into Spain, not to mention back home. You should have let me keep the stuff in my purse."
"You didn't bring your purse. You wanted to carry the camcorder. You said, 'There's no reason for both of us to bring a purse -- just put everything into yours.' "
"In retrospect, I should have known better," Kay said, folding her arms.
"Don't get snippy with me," Marlaina said. "Let's just calm down and think."
They eventually decided to call the credit card company and get a refund on the travelers checks, then contact the American consulate and ask what to do about the stolen passports. Kay retrieved the camcorder bag, then the sisters headed off to the nearest public phones.
"Got any coins?" Marlaina asked, picking up the receiver. Kay searched her pockets and came up with a 100-franc note. "Just this. I used all the coins you gave me for the juice."
"We'll have to break it." Marlaina glanced around and spotted a McDonald's across the street. "How about we get something to eat first?" she suggested. Kay agreed.
They entered the restaurant and placed their orders.
"Everything's so expensive in Paris," Kay said as they headed into the dining room and sat down at a corner table. "Almost nine francs for a cheeseburger. That's--" she did a rapid mental calculation " -- about two dollars American! Unbelievable."
Marlaina had her cheeseburger halfway to her mouth. She froze and let it drop to the table.
"Shocking, isn't it?" Kay said.
"That's them!" Marlaina exclaimed. "Those kids who stole my purse - - there they are!" Kay turned and saw the boy and girl coming down the stairs from the upper floor of the restaurant.
The boy held out a single plastic-wrapped rose to the couple at the nearest table.
"Hey you kids! Come here!" Marlaina said loudly. The children spun around. A look of surprise and fear crossed their faces; the boy flung down the rose and bolted out the door, his sister not a moment behind.
"Blast!" Marlaina spat. She dashed out after them.
"Wait! What about..." Kay made a sound of frustration and swept the cheeseburgers into the camcorder bag. She got up and took off after her sister.
"Come back here, you little spuds!" Marlaina shouted as she pursued the children down the crowded sidewalk. Several people shot her annoyed looks as she shoved past them in her haste. She heard Kay's voice behind her and slowed momentarily to allow her to catch up.
The children ran like frightened rabbits, Marlaina a wolf on their trail. They came to a metro entrance and flew down the stairs. "Ha! We've got them now!" Marlaina said.
The sisters reached the bottom and saw the kids huddled near the entrance gates, which consisted of a series of vertical metal panels which could only be pushed open after inserting a metro ticket into the validation machine. Marlaina slowly approached the children.
"We don't want to hurt you," she said sternly. "All we want is our stuff back." They remained silent. "I don't think they understand," said Kay. "Let me try."
"No -- I've got it," Marlaina said. "Je vais appeler un agent," she said to the children. At this, their eyes went wide. The boy said something to his sister, who seemed to agree.
At that moment, a man came down the stairs and walked up to an entrance gate. He inserted a metro ticket into a slot on the front side of the validation machine. The ticket popped out of a slot at the top; the man reclaimed it and pushed open the panels. Before Marlaina could react, the boy had swung around and shot through the panels a split second before they closed. He collided with the man on the other side, but quickly recovered and ran. The girl started to imitate her brother's maneuver as another person came down and went through the gates. Marlaina lunged and managed to grab the back of the girl's coat; the child violently jerked forward and a fistful of fur tore loose, allowing her to slip free.
"Why did you have to threaten them with the police?" Kay said. "They looked like they were going to give up."
"Well they're getting away now!" Marlaina snapped. She grabbed her sister by the shoulders. "Where are the rest of the train tickets!"
Kay reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out a bunch of small yellow slips. Marlaina snatched one and jammed it into the slot of the nearest validation machine.
A moment later, she burst out onto the train platform. Kay emerged a few seconds later. Even though the train hadn't yet arrived, the people on the platform were standing around expectantly. Marlaina quickly scanned the crowd and saw the children at the far end of the platform. She started towards them just as the train roared into the tunnel.
"Stop those kids!" Marlaina shouted, but her words were drowned out by the sound of the train as it slowly ground to a halt. The doors opened, and the two children leaped inside.
"Wait up!" called Kay. Marlaina spun around and took hold of her sister. "They're in this car. Come on!" She pushed Kay ahead of her into the train.
A warning tone sounded, and seconds later the doors closed. The train lurched forward and gathered speed. Marlaina looked around and spotted the children near the doors at the opposite end of the car. "End of the line," she murmured. Once again she started towards them. The children eyed her fearfully. The boy then turned to a large business- suited woman next to him and spoke to her. Something he said made the woman glance over at Marlaina.
"I think you should back off for now," said Kay. "You'd only make a scene."
"You're right," Marlaina said. "They'd scream bloody murder and get the fat lady to sit on us. Just wait 'till they get off."
The train rumbled on through the tunnel. Marlaina watched the children with hawklike intensity. She nearly had them, and didn't intend to let them escape.
"How old do you think they are?" Kay asked, clutching a stanchion wearily.
"What?" Marlaina said, not looking at her.
"Those kids. They can't be more than seven or eight." Kay rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "It's so sad that they have to make a living on the street. They ought to be in school, having fun."
"Yeah. Stealing from tourists is a lot of fun."
"They wouldn't if they didn't have to," Kay replied. The kids had now taken seats next to the large woman. The boy chatted amiably with her, while his sister kept an eye trained on Marlaina.
"Maybe you should have bought a flower from him," said Kay.
"I told you. It was just a diversion."
"I just think that maybe if you had..." At this Marlaina frowned. "Like, I'm not responsible for the economic condition of this country," she said. Kay looked away and shrugged, leaving the thought unfinished.
For nearly half an hour the train rumbled on, and still the kids made no attempt to leave. Marlaina glanced up at the metro system map and saw that they were a little over half way to the end of the line. The large woman had left, and two leather-jacketed youths in ripped jeans had taken the seats next to the kids. Eventually, Marlaina's patience broke. She made her way over to where the kids sat.
"Excusez-moi," she said to the youth in the aisle seat nearest her. "I have to speak to the children -- les enfants, s'il vous plait." The youth looked up at her. He was blonde and a tiny gold cross dangled from his ear. The boy quickly whispered something to him. The blonde youth smiled and said something to his companion across from him. They laughed. He looked up at Marlaina again and put his hand on her arm. "Bonjour, ma petit," he grinned.
Marlaina withdrew her arm and went back to join her sister.
"The City of Love, eh Lainie?" Kay said, smiling.
"Shut up, sis," said Marlaina.
Station signs flashed by the window: St. Jacques; Glaciere; Corvisart. Finally, at Place d'Italie, the children made their move.
As the train screeched to a stop, the children scrambled over the laps of the leather-jackets and dashed for the doors.
Marlaina's heart leaped. "After them!" she said, pushing Kay down the aisle. "Make sure they don't double back on us."
The doors whooshed open, and Marlaina sprang to the platform. She shoved her way through the crowd, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the children as they darted into a side corridor marked CORRESPONDANCE. "I'm over here, Kay! Come on!" she yelled over her shoulder as she began the chase anew.
The corridor led out onto another platform, somewhat less crowded than the one they had just left. A train was pulling up as Marlaina and Kay rounded the corner. The kids were once again heading to the car at the far end of the tunnel. Marlaina yelled for them to stop, and in her haste collided with a man bearing an armful of packages. Marlaina quickly apologized as she scooped up a few boxes and tossed them at the man. Kay bent down to collect the others, but Marlaina yanked her up and pulled her along.
The warning tone sounded. "Mairie d'Ivry," came a voice over the loudspeaker. Marlaina saw the kids hop aboard the train. Her first impulse was to board that same car, but the warning had already sounded and there wasn't enough time. She had no choice but to get aboard the car behind them.
Kay spun around to prevent the doors from closing on the camcorder bag. "Aren't you getting tired of this?" she panted.
"I'm not going to let those little spuds get away with our stuff," Marlaina said determinedly.
"But they're in the car ahead of us," Kay said. "They'll have a head start when they get off."
"So hit the ground running," Marlaina replied.
At the next stop, the two sisters were the first ones off the train. They dashed along the platform to the car ahead of them, dodging the exiting passengers. Inexplicably, the children were not among them. A coldness formed in the pit of Marlaina's stomach at the thought that the kids might have eluded her, but she saw them sitting in the middle of the car, chatting with an elderly gentleman.
An idea struck her. She instructed Kay to board the car through the doors near the rear end, while she herself entered through the doors near the front. As the train staggered into motion Marlaina allowed herself to smile. The children were trapped between herself and her sister; there was no escaping this time.
The girl suddenly ceased speaking and tugged at her brother's sleeve. She whispered a few urgent words and pointed to either end of the car. The boy's eyes went wide, but he continued talking as if nothing was wrong.
At Maison Blanche, the young man whom Marlaina met at the Eiffel Tower boarded the train. He was accompanied by the two girls who had called him away.
"Hey, it's the girl with hat! Small world, isn't it?" he said when he saw Marlaina. "I didn't catch your name back there."
Marlaina frowned slightly. He and the girls were blocking her view of the children; she told him her name anyway. He introduced himself as Ryan, and his two companions as Heather and Val. Marlaina nodded to them and tried discreetly to shift her position to get a better view of the kids.
"Guess what happened," Ryan said. "Heather's dad forgot the spare battery for his video camera!" He explained that they had an hour and a half for lunch before the next part of the tour, and that it would be just enough time for them to return to the hotel to get it and get back to the meeting place on time.
Marlaina nodded, only half-listening.
"Is your hotel out this way?" Ryan asked. Marlaina shook her head. "You're a bit far from all the sights then," he continued. "This is the 13th arrondissement -- no man's land, if you believe the guidebook. For some reason the tour operators booked our hotel in this district -- the rates must be lower here or something."
"I take it you're all on the same tour?" Marlaina said, craning her neck slightly.
"It's the wildest thing," said Heather, the petite redhead. "All throughout Brussels we didn't notice each other, even though we were at the same hotel. Then yesterday, our first day here in Paris, we were on the bus tour and we stopped for pictures at" -- she looked at Ryan -- "what was that place with the fountains and the obelisk thing?"
"The Place de la Concorde," he supplied.
"That's it," Heather said. "Anyway, I had gotten away from my parents for a moment, and Val had gotten away from her dad, and we kind of bumped into each other as we were taking pictures of the statues..." She continued on to tell how Ryan then came up to them and asked if it was their first day in Paris. From that point on they'd decided to see the sights together.
"Have you been to the Louvre yet?" asked Val in an Australian- accented voice. "We saw the actual Mona Lisa. It was major brilliant!"
"Notre Dame was totally awesome," added Heather. "I mean, it's absolutely humungous! You've got to see it."
"What wing of the Louvre was the Mona Lisa in?" asked Marlaina. Val looked uncertain. "Somewhere past the statue of the headless winged woman, I think," she said.
"Exactly how big was the cathedral?" Marlaina asked Heather. "That is, how many people could it accomodate?"
Heather's brow furrowed in thought. "The guide told us, but I can't remember. A lot, though."
The train suddenly lurched into a hard left turn, throwing everyone to the right. "Almost to the next stop," Ryan said.
Marlaina stood on tiptoe and signalled to Kay as the train began slowing down.
"Say, why don't you have a drink with us tonight, after the tour's over?" said Ryan. "There's this brasserie on Montparnasse that we've heard is nice."
"Uh, yeah. Right," said Marlaina. "Could you excuse me?"
At that moment the train came to a stop. The children leaped up and dashed straight for Marlaina's end of the car.
"Was that a yes?" asked Ryan. The doors opened and the children bolted out. Marlaina shoved him aside and raced after them.
"I think that's a no, mate," Val said as the doors closed again.
Marlaina and Kay pursued the children through the exit gates and up the steps into the afternoon sunlight. They were now on a busy street at the outskirts of the city. The buildings here were mainly residential and of the same general appearance. Kay grimaced and looked away as she brushed past an advertising stand papered over with sex-magazine covers.
They crossed the Peripherique overpass and came to an intersection. At this point the girl continued straight on ahead while the boy detoured right. "Get the girl!" Marlaina called to Kay. "Meet you back here later." They split up.
The sidewalks seemed almost deserted. Cars whizzed by on the road. Marlaina was several seconds behind the boy. "Arretez!" she shouted. To her surprise, the boy came to a stop. He paused on the edge of the curb. Marlaina thought he was at last giving himself up, but to her horror he darted out into the street.
Marlaina stopped in her tracks. "You crazy-ass kid! Get back here!" she screamed. The boy threaded his way through the stream of oncoming cars and miraculously made it to a traffic island. Marlaina breathed a sigh of relief. "Stay right there!" she ordered him. She waited impatiently for a break in the traffic and when it came, hurried across. The boy saw her coming and took off.
Marlaina made it to the traffic island. A car passed, then the street was momentarily empty. She was almost halfway across when her foot came down into a pothole. She lost her balance and slammed forward into the asphalt. "Ow!" she yelped.
As she pushed herself to her knees she heard the approaching growl of an engine. Looking up, she saw a taxi rocketing straight for her! Fear shot through her body; she quickly sprang to her feet and scrambled out of the way. The taxi sped on past, its horn blaring.
Marlaina yelled a curse at the back of the departing vehicle. She picked up her fallen hat and hurried to the other side of the street. As she placed the fedora back on her head she saw the boy standing motionless only a few feet away.
Marlaina froze, wondering why the boy hadn't taken the opportunity to flee. He simply stared at her, his large brown eyes unblinking. Marlaina slowly lowered her arms to her sides, knowing that any sudden movement could frighten him off.
"I'm not going to harm you," she said in a soft voice. The boy just stared at her, uncomprehending. Marlaina wished she could speak the language; even though she had nearly memorized the French phrasebook she'd bought before the trip, there was nothing in it that was applicable to this situation.
"Comment vous appelez-vous?" she tried. No response. Okay, so he didn't want to tell her his name. "Venez ici, s'il vous plait. I just want my stuff back." She slowly reached out her hand. The boy looked at it for a long time. Finally, he took a tentative step forward. Then another. He put his hand to his jacket pocket.
At that moment, the undulating wail of a police siren shattered the momentary peace. The boy's head jerked at the sound and he jumped back as if bitten. "Wait!" Marlaina cried, lunging forward to grasp him. The boy spun away and sped off down a side street.
The wail reached a crescendo as the police car roared by. Marlaina sprinted after the child. She wished she hadn't tried to grab him.
The boy made it to the end of the street and cut left. Marlaina rounded the corner a few seconds later, but it was too late. The intersection was empty -- the boy was gone.
Marlaina sighed and slumped against the wall. She pushed herself away and started walking back the way she had come. For the first time she took notice of her surroundings. Cars were parked on either side of the narrow street, leaving barely enough space for a single car to pass down the middle. The apartment buildings looked old. Marlaina spotted a small brown pile on the pavement and looked away. What had Ryan's guidebook called this part of the city? No man's land. Aptly put.
Someone called her name. She looked up and saw Kay hurrying toward her. "Don't tell me you lost him, Lainie," she said.
Marlaina shrugged. "And I suppose the girl gave you the slip, too," she said.
"Au contraire, ma soeur," said Kay. "I found out where they live. Come on."
They walked out onto the main street. Kay said, "When we were at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I noticed that most of the buildings on each block didn't take up the entire space -- they were built around the edges, leaving a sort of courtyard in the center."
"That's nice," said Marlaina. "Get to the point."
"I am," Kay said. "Anyway, I was chasing the girl down the street when she suddenly turned off into an archway that led into this block's courtyard. I followed the girl in, but she was gone.
So I looked behind me and saw that this side of the block was all apartments. I went back and found the door to the apartments -- I didn't notice that I'd run past it."
"So did you go in?"
"Well...no. I didn't want to go knocking around blindly. But get this: right across from the apartments is a hotel. I went around to it and got on one of the upper floors. From the hallway windows you can get a perfect view of those same apartments."
"You'll see when we get there."
A few minutes later they were in the lobby of the hotel; they took the elevator to the fourth floor. Kay led Marlaina down the hallway to the window at the end. Marlaina turned the handle and pushed it open.
She looked out over the courtyard and saw the apartments Kay described. They had a dark and run-down appearance. Directly below her, a man rummaged through a garbage dumpster. Off to the right was a ruined shack.
No man's land, she thought.
"I was thinking that I might see the girl in one of the windows," Kay said. "And my hypothesis was correct. I saw her in that window there -- second floor, third one from the right."
Marlaina looked to the one she indicated. The lights were on in the room, and there were no curtains. As they stood there watching, a woman dressed in a maid's uniform came into view. She held out her arms, and the boy Marlaina had been chasing ran to her. The woman knelt and embraced him.
"That's where they live, all right," Marlaina said, turning from the window. "Good thinking, Kay."
"You're not going to go over there, are you?" Kay asked. "I mean, what are you going to say -- 'excuse me, but your kids are thieves?' "
"We came all this way," said Marlaina. "You yourself said how important it was to get our passports back. That's what I'm going to do." She started off down the hall.
"Lainie," Kay called softly. Marlaina turned. "Take it easy on them. They're just kids."
"Wait for me here," Marlaina said.
The courtyard was silent as Marlaina made her way through the archway. Her bootsteps echoed across the rough cobblestone. She saw her sister waving from the hotel window; after a moment it came to her that Kay was pointing out the door to the apartments. After a few moments of exploration Marlaina found it and made her way up a dimly lit flight of stairs. Strange odors wafted down; the stairs creaked with nearly every step she took.
She reached the second floor and went to the third door from the far end of the hallway. She raised her hand to knock, but then lowered it. What was she going to say, anyway? More importantly, would she be able to say it? Her phrasebook French probably wouldn't be sufficient.
The impulse to just leave and forget the whole thing suddenly gripped her. She fought it down. If you go at all, it may as well be all the way, she thought. Steeling herself, she knocked on the door.
A dark-haired man in his early thirties answered. "Bonjour, monsieur," Marlaina said quickly. "I, uh--"
"What can I help you with, miss?" he said in accented English.
"Oh -- uh, sorry to disturb you, sir," said Marlaina, relieved that he spoke her language. "I have to tell you something -- about your kids."
The man nodded slowly. "Come in, mademoiselle," he said, holding the door open for her.
Marlaina entered the apartment. It was sparsely furnished: a couch here, a couple of chairs there, a televison flickering in the corner. The wallpaper was faded and coming off in places.
She turned to the man and introduced herself. He told her his name was Lucien. At that moment the woman in the maid's outfit entered the room. Upon seeing Marlaina, she put her hand to her mouth and ducked back into the room she had come from. "My sister Jeanne," said Lucien.
Marlaina gave a little cough. "I don't know how to tell you this," she began, "but --"
Lucien held up a hand. "I know why are you are here." He turned and called out, "Jean-Michel! Isabella!"
There was the soft sound of a woman's voice. A few long minutes later, the two children crept into the room. They stood along the wall farthest from Marlaina.
Lucien motioned for her to sit on the couch. He sat next to her. "My sister's children did not mean to steal from you," he said. "They are not thieves." Turning his attention to the children he said, "Explain to her."
By turns, Jean-Michel and Isabella spoke in French. Lucien translated.
"They say they are sorry. Jean-Michel only wanted to sell you a flower. Isabella says you spoke rudely to them when you did not want to buy the flower. That made her angry, and so she stole your purse. They were sorry afterwards, but too afraid to go back and return it. They decided to first sell the rest of the flowers, then come home and ask my advice. When they saw you in the restaurant you looked very angry, so they ran. They were going to return your purse to you in the metro, but you had said you were going to call the police."
Lucien continued. "Jean-Michel says that when you were almost run over in the street, he felt very bad. He was about to give your purse back but then he heard the police siren and again became afraid. Isabella says that they never stole anything before, and that they will give you all the money they have if you will not call the police."
Marlaina looked at the children huddled in the corner, and her heart melted. Jean-Michel stood very still; Isabella looked as if she was about to cry. Marlaina felt a wetness brimming in her own eyes. She looked away and blinked.
"I didn't realize," she said. "I'm sorry if I frightened them. I just...." She shrugged and looked down. A moment later she felt a small touch on her shoulder. She raised her head and saw Jean-Michel and Isabella standing before her. "Je regrette," the boy said. His sister echoed his words. Jean-Michel brought Marlaina's purse out from behind his back; his sister took hold of the strap and together they offered it to her.
"Everything is there. Nothing has been taken," Lucien said gravely.
Marlaina accepted the purse. She looked into Isabella's eyes. "Merci," she said. "Sorry about your coat, though." She gently patted the girl's shoulder. A faint smile touched the child's lips.
"Merci," Marlaina said to Jean-Michel. She took hold of his hand. "Ever think about becoming a track star?"
Lucien translated this; Jean-Michel looked back at Marlaina and grinned. For some reason, Marlaina felt like putting her hat on the boy's head.
"May I see you out?" Lucien said. "I have to go to work now."
"Of course." Marlaina stood up and drew the purse strap over her shoulder. She took one final look at the kids before she and Lucien left the apartment.
"I feel I must explain," said Lucien as they made their way down the stairs. "After my brother-in-law died in an auto accident, my sister had to move in with me. I was living by myself, and my income as a tour guide was just enough. But it became insufficient to support my sister and her children, so she works now as a maid in the hotel. Isabella and Jean-Michel, they also wanted to help. That is why they sell flowers."
They walked out into the courtyard. "You must meet a lot of interesting people, being a tour guide and all," Marlaina said.
Lucien nodded. "Are you yourself here with a tour group?" he asked.
"Me and my sister, we're just kind of traveling independently," Marlaina replied. "But we're planning to hit all the important places."
Lucien chuckled slightly. "One thing I have noticed about many people, Americans especially, is that they visit the Eiffel Tower, they see the Mona Lisa, then they talk as if they have seen everything there is to see in Paris." He led Marlaina out onto the sidewalk. "If you really want to see the city, go where the crowds do not. Then you will discover the things that cannot be seen from the window of a tour bus."
Marlaina looked around at the gray buildings and dusty streets. "They never mentioned this part of the city in the brochures," she said.
Lucien smiled. "Walk around a while, you may find it interesting. For this, too, is Paris." He turned and strode away.
"Did you get everything straightened out?" Kay asked, meeting Marlaina at the hotel entrance. Marlaina nodded and showed her the purse. "Everything's here. Let's go."
They started off down the street. "By the way," Kay said, "Who were those people you were talking to on the train--that guy and those girls?"
Marlaina shrugged. "Tourists," she said.
Carlo Samson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is 23 years old, and recently graduated from college with a B.S. in Computer Information Systems. He is employed by a software development company, and has been writing fantasy/adventure for the Dargon Project (in both FSFNet and DargonZine) for the past five years. "Parisian Pursuit" is his first non-fantasy short story. (This bio originally written in 1991.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Carlo Samson.