A cool breeze whisked through the Austerlitz station and greeted the arrival of the night train from Bordeaux. I glanced at my watch, it was midnight, I was late, but the train was not. I had missed an earlier coach, and was lucky to find a vacant seat on the later train to Paris. A faceless group of passengers pushed passed me on the platform; I guessed that they were off to find waiting loved ones or pursue the clandestine destinies of the old city.
I carried only my satchel and copy of the Times, my luggage had been long since forwarded to Brussels. Soon, I would have to catch a cab to Saint Lazare, to meet the next east bound train. My ticket was for Strasbourg. I looked around the old station for my contact, but few people walked in my direction. I found a bench near the gate and opened the paper, the news section hardly mattered, I was just killing time. The station emptied, then was quiet. Only a group of sleeping nuns remained, apparently waiting another arrival.
“Peux-je voir votre journal s'il vous plaît?” A soft voice broke the stillness of the vacant station. She had seated herself behind me.
I rolled up a section and passed it over my shoulder. “Speak English, there’s nobody here. Besides, my French is for revolution not for polite society.”
She took the paper from me. “You’re late you know. What’s this?”
Obviously, she had discovered the two envelopes I had hidden between the pages. “The brown you’re expecting.” I waited but there was no reply. “The other’s a valentine, today is valentine’s day.”
“Oh, so it is.”
“You used to cut hearts out of red paper, remember.” I shook my part of the paper. The little girl I once knew would sit at her mother’s feet cutting out valentines then deliver them all over the neighborhood.
“That was long ago.”
“Too grown up for valentines now?” I asked.
“Where’d you get it?” She avoided my question.
“Cavorting with bandits again? Better watch who you pick for friends.”
I let her caustic remarks slide, I was used to her barbs, it was part of her personality. With me she was teasing, with opposition she was lethal. It seemed like yesterday that a little girl with braces would deluge me with silly questions whenever she saw me. The orthodontia must of have paid off. I have been told that she now lights a room with her smile, but her questions have turned deadly.
“You didn’t sign it?”
“Of course not.” We had learned to avoid signatures of any kind especially those that would link us to time, place, or person. Absence was a virtue.
“It’s the thought,” she said. I detected a little compassion in her voice.
A group of college students passed us on their way to the southbound train. Their night in Paris over, they would sleep on the same train on which I arrived. Their laughing and jostling broke the tranquility of the old station. Above their chatter I could hear her paper rustling and movement behind me.
“Votre monsieur en papier,” she said, and passed the newspaper back to me. “Merci.” She switched to English when she whispered, “don’t miss your train.”
I reached over my shoulder and momentarily touched her fingertips. “Remercier vous Manque.” The paper dropped down my coat, I recovered it and turned but she was gone. When I opened the newspaper a small red crepe paper heart fluttered to the floor.
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