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Authors: Barbara Pope

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The Missing Italian Girl (7 page)

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
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If only she could believe the way Pyotr, Lidia and Vera did, Maura thought as she ate the last of her frites. The Russians proclaimed that everyone should and eventually
would
be free: free to live, to learn, to earn, to love. Maura felt too poor to believe in these dreams. And too aware that you could love someone who did not love you.

Maura sank into a metal chair by a pair of grandmothers in big feathered hats knitting baby clothes and exchanging judgments on passersby. She closed her eyes, blocking them out. Mme Vergennes had told her to come back when she was willing to reveal who she really was. But who was Maura Laurenzano, really? A shirt finisher with high ambitions? An accomplice to a murder? A bad sister, a worse daughter? Why would she ever want to tell anyone who she was?

Suddenly a little boy in breeches bumped into her. “Felix!” his nanny scolded, “not so fast, we’ll get to the show in time.”

“Rude,” clucked one grandmother, and Maura could not agree more. The stupid nanny, all decked out in her black-and-white uniform, hadn’t even offered an apology.

“You would think,” said the other old woman, “that they could offer more elevating entertainments than Punch and Judy.”

Maura straightened up. A puppet show. Watching Punch and Judy hit each other might be just the thing to get her mind off her troubles. She crushed the greasy paper that had held her potatoes and dropped it under the chair, before getting up to follow the nanny and the rambunctious boy.

But she never got to the puppet theater in the park. As mothers and nursemaids began to congregate with their charges toward the children’s playground, Maura heard an organ grinder playing a familiar Italian song. Heart pounding, she followed the music. What if she was about to find her tall, handsome father? As she rounded a bend she saw that the musician was stout and mustachioed, wearing the kind of silly alpine hat her tall, blond father never wore. She scurried out of sight before a little girl holding out a cup for donations spotted her. Of course, it wasn’t her father, just as that little girl was not Maura, but seeing the accordionist and the child evoked the old sadness.

There were signs everywhere warning her against stepping on the grass, so Maura leaned against a pole and let the memories float in her mind. Her father always claimed to hate singing in the street. Like many poor Italian children of his generation, he had been practically sold by his impoverished parents to be apprenticed as an “accordion boy.” Maura remembered the bitterness in his voice when he talked about being torn from his mother and native village in the Italian mountains. He spent his childhood on the streets of French cities, playing and begging, being beaten by his master and hounded by the authorities. Abandoned in Paris, he only survived because he was rescued by a kind Polish immigrant who taught him how to lay bricks.

He had been happy, he said, for just a little while. But once he had family to support, he took up his accordion again, every Sunday, this time enlisting his own daughters to hold out the begging cups. He’d claimed that Angela made the most money because of her blond curls. He hardly noticed that Maura was the one who listened and learned all the songs, who felt his unhappiness every time he talked about his faraway home. Her favorite songs were his favorites, sad ballads that he sang at their table after he had drunk a good deal of wine. She began to hum:

Vado di notte come fa la luna

I wander through the night like the moon

Vado cercando lo mio innamorato

Searching to find my true love

Ritrovai la Morte acerba et dura

Instead I found mocking, cruel Death

Mi disse: “Non cercar, l’ho sotterato

Who told me, “Don’t look anymore, I’ve buried him.”

When Maura was a child, she had always loved the notion of wandering like the moon. Back then, sitting on the floor, watching her father, she hadn’t known death or abandonment. Now she did. And the haunting melody, with its eerie lyrics, suddenly made her uneasy. She needed to get back. What if they had found the body? What if something had happened to Pyotr? Or to Angela? She searched for someone, anyone, who could tell her how to get to the Panthéon.

6

T
HE POLICE CAME FOR THE
Russian girls that afternoon.

Maura spotted the black van before she got to her street. She knew it was a police wagon because of the breathing slits slashed along its windowless side. For an instant, she thought of turning back and running. But she had to know what was happening. What if they had found Angela? Maura glanced at the driver, who sat smoking a cigarette, reins in hand, as indifferent and impassive as the horses he commanded. Heart pounding, she walked by as if she had no interest in his presence, as if she were completely innocent.

When she rounded the corner onto the rue de l’Arbelète, she heard the shouting. A score of men and women had gathered in front of the dank wineshop across from her building. For one insane, hopeful moment, she imagined the police were there to quell a drunken brawl. Then she understood what they were saying, and she knew. “Foreigners!” “Anarchists!” “Killers!” “Bombers!” An old crone, screaming with righteous anger, stepped in front of the crowd and pointed toward the entrance to Maura’s building. Vera and Lidia stumbled out, their hands tied behind their backs. They were being poked and prodded with rifles by three uniformed men. Despite their ill treatment and the curses being flung at them, they held their heads high.

Maura flattened herself against a wall. She felt as if someone had grabbed her by the throat and was squeezing the life out of her. Was there some mistake? Had they really come for her and Angela? Maura froze in place as the frightening entourage approached. She almost cried out when she heard footsteps scurrying behind her. A toothless old woman jostled her, trying to get a better view. “Looks like those foreigners are at it again,” the woman crowed to her companion, a man in a blue worker’s smock, carrying a street sweeper’s broom. The man grinned and shrugged his shoulders, enjoying the spectacle. Much to Maura’s relief, they ignored her.

As the police and their prisoners got closer and closer to the corner, Maura caught Vera’s eye. Instinctively she reached for the brooch she had “borrowed” from the Russian girl. Vera shook her head ever so slightly. She wasn’t worried about jewelry or borrowed clothes. She had a more urgent message to convey: “Act like you don’t know us.”

“What are you looking at?” one of the policemen said as he struck the tall Russian girl in the ribs with the butt of his rifle.

She gasped with pain, but refused to bend. “I’m looking at the poor people of Paris. Those you oppress,” she said loud enough for all to hear.

Maura’s finger nails clawed into the wall. Bullies! She wanted to run up and slap the vicious brute. But she could do nothing. The police might have found Barbereau. They wouldn’t care that Pyotr didn’t mean to do it, that he was only saving Angela. They’d say that she and Angela helped murder the bastard, and then, and then, they’d happily let go of the Russian girls and drag her and Angela all the way to the guillotine.

The toothless old woman stepped forward and spit on Lidia. Not knowing what to do, Maura glanced at Vera, who again signaled with a slight shake of head,
do nothing
. Some of wineshop habitués trailed the terrible procession through the narrow street, hooting and shaking their fists. Sweating with fear and from the relentless heat of the waning afternoon, Maura wound her way past them toward her building. Angela, she had to find Angela.
Maman
, she bit her lip, the plea came unbidden into her mind.
Maman
. Oh, to be home again. Oh, to be back to the way things were, as miserable as they were.

“I hope you weren’t part of their plots.”

The stocky concierge, heightened by her clogs, stepped in front of Maura, blocking her entrance to the building. Every concierge that Maura had ever known was nosy, controlling the comings and goings of tenants and resenting the cleaning up they had to do. Maura had always done her best to steer clear of them. This one was not about to let her pass.

“You heard what I said, missy. I know you are up there with them.”

“What did they do?” Maura tried to sound innocent, even as she played the part of Judas. Her mind ran with questions.
Why take the Russians away now? Have they found Barbereau’s body? Or have the police decided to round up all anarchists and foreigners?
Maura shuddered. Either way, she was in danger. The French suspected Italians of all kinds of crimes and plots too.

“Another bomb.”

“Bomb?” This time Maura did not have to feign her innocence or alarm.

“Yeah, over near Montmartre. Some Russian.” She cackled with glee. “Blew him up instead of anyone else. Served him right. At least that’s what the police told me.”

“A Russian,” Maura whispered.
Pyotr!
But she daren’t ask more, daren’t admit that she knew a Russian boy. Or that she loved one. “I must find my sister,” she mumbled. “Please,” she pleaded. “We haven’t done anything wrong,” she lied.

“I want you gone by tomorrow, you hear?” the woman said as she stepped aside.

Maura could feel the concierge’s eyes boring into her back as she tried to walk up the stairs like a normal person. But her feet were leaden, as if already weighed down with the chains of a condemned prisoner. Still she persisted, one foot in front of the other, up all three flights, hoping against hope that Angela would be in the room waiting for her. They had to figure out what to do.

As soon as she saw the wide-open door, she knew that her sister would not be there. Still she was shocked to see the destruction: books and pictures flung on the floor, clothes torn off their hooks and out of drawers, the bed mattress upended and slashed. Even Angela and Maura’s poor possessions had been strewn about and trampled on.

Everything was going wrong. Everything! Frustrated and scared, Maura pulled the mattress back into place and flung herself upon the bed. She hid her head in her arms, trying to push the day and all its terrible events out of her mind. She didn’t know how long she had lain there before she felt a hand gently shaking her shoulder.

“Maura.”

Angela
. Maura sat up and embraced her sister. “What happened?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I ran. Vera and Lidia told me to hide and not come back for a while. Do you think all this,” Angela grimaced as she looked about the room, “all this is because of us?”

Maura shook her head.

“If it is,” Angela continued, “then we need to go to the police. We need to confess. We can’t let—”

“Stop it. Stop talking nonsense.” Maura put her hand over Angela’s mouth and peered into her eyes. “We
can’t
go to the police. They’ll send us to the guillotine, and Pyotr too.”
Pyotr! Was he even alive?
“Listen,” she said more calmly, “Vera and Lidia were arrested because they are anarchists. Maybe there is another roundup.”

Maura let go of Angela and told her what she had found out. When Angela heard there was a possibility that a Russian had been killed, she rose from the bed and began picking up and folding the scattered clothes, one by one, placing them on the table.

“It may not be Pyotr, you know. Maybe it’s just a rumor,” Maura offered.

Still Angela lifted and folded, flattening each blouse and skirt without saying a word. This was no good. They had decisions to make.

“We have to find out for sure. You stay here,” Maura ordered. “Fix things up for when Vera and Lidia come back.” Maura swallowed hard, suppressing her own doubts about whether the Russian girls would ever be allowed to come back. “I’ll go and see if I can find out if anything really happened near Montmartre.”

“Don’t leave me!” Angela suddenly came to life and grabbed Maura’s arm.

Maura patted her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m only going to look for a newspaper. Surely the late editions will have something. And, if not, we’ll know it was all lies. That will be good, don’t you think?” she added, searching for some way to reassure her sister.

Angela nodded and turned away, surveying the destruction before once again picking and folding and smoothing out Vera and Lidia’s things, her movements slow, deliberate and futile. Maura feared that if she stayed, watching, one more minute, she’d be immobilized by the cloud of despair that had enveloped her sister. She had to get out.

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she waited until she could slip unnoticed past the lodge in the courtyard where the concierge lived. Once on the street, she ran to the nearest market square, hoping to find a newspaper hawker. A small crowd had already gathered. She heard the word “bomb” and pushed her way through, holding up one of Barbereau’s smallest coins and wresting a copy of
Le Petit Parisien
from the seller’s hands. Then she hurried to the old church on the square, yanked at its door, and went in. Her hard breathing filled her with the familiar smell of burning tallow as she scanned the interior to see if she was safe. Only a few people were there. A woman was showing a little girl how to light a candle at a side altar. Two others, on the opposite side of the church, knelt in front of thatched chairs, reciting their beads. A hatless man, near the front, sat immobile, staring up at the painted ceiling. No priest, no nosy nuns. Maura sat down, panting. Vera’s blouse was pasted to her skin. It was a relief to be in the dark, cool vastness of the ancient building.

Maura mumbled a prayer
. Please, God, not Pyotr.
If she had not been so close to tears, she might have laughed. Within the last hour, she had called out to her mother, and now she expected God to hear her.
How desperate can you get?
Her mother didn’t love her, and Maura certainly did not expect God to answer her prayer. She was on her own. Her eyes fell on the newspaper clutched in her damp hands. The headline screamed
ANARCHIST BOMB IN THE GOUTTE-D’OR
! Maura gasped. Her neighborhood. Pyotr’s neighborhood. She forced herself to read on:

Early this morning a bomb exploded in the Goutte-d’Or Quartier, disturbing those going about their daily lives, and waking others from a peaceful sleep.

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
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