A Cup of Russian Tea (cont’d)

Chapter 2

I live just off the Avenue des Gobelins, not far from the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital. It is not the fanciest area of Paris. My street looks a bit run down to me, although it was not so visible at this time of night. My mother and I have a small place up four flights of stairs. I get the one bedroom, and she converts the couch to a bed every night, turning the living room into her personal space.

After I made the climb up to our door, I found my mother waiting for me. She was in the middle of grading a pile of homework. She stood to give me a big hug. Being smaller than I am, she had to reach up to put her arms around me. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. It took a while because we had to answer a lot of questions.”

“So I guess you don’t want more of them?”

“No, I’m sorry. We can talk tomorrow. I need to go to sleep. I assume Papa gave you the highlights, anyway.”

She shrugged, unimpressed with his summary of events. “I saw something on the news about it. It was Ecole Militaire, right?”

“Yeah. What did they say?”

“Just that a woman fell onto the train tracks.”

“They said she… fell?” Not that she was pushed?

“It was not a very long segment. Just a brief interview with a policeman outside in the street. He said not much was known about what happened.”

I was puzzled by this. DGSI must have ordered some kind of clampdown of information. But it seemed strange that the police were not even releasing the fact that it was a deliberate act.

“Did they mention her nationality?”

“No. Why? She wasn’t French?”

I shook my head, remembering I wasn’t supposed to give details. I kissed my mother good night. “I’ve really got to go to sleep.” I brushed my teeth and went into my room, changing into a tee shirt and loose yoga pants. I put my hair up with an elastic band and lay on the violet cover of my narrow bed. Edie’s texts went through my head, mixing with my mother’s account of the news. Rather than getting under the covers, I took out my phone, and looked at some news sites myself. Edie was right that the video of us had not been released. There was no image of me holding a gun to go viral. I looked at some written news stories. They were very vague about who the woman was and how she died. They did not even give her name.

It was not a terribly huge story in itself, if it was not being reported as the murder of a diplomat. An unknown woman falling off a platform was a tragedy, but a minor blip in the news cycle.

I was about to give up and go to bed, but just out of habit I checked my school email before turning out my light. There were two messages, one from my friend Kalpana, and another from an unfamiliar name. It took me a second of looking at it to see that it was from S. Hardy — rather than from “shardy.” Stephen had written to me at about seven p.m. This was right around the time Edie was being questioned. When I had wondered who he was writing to, it was me.

I opened the email. He wrote:

Hi Aline, you are standing about four feet from me but I find it hard to talk with your dad sitting right here. I’ve got so many thoughts in my head. The first is: does Edie usually make good decisions, or not? It was a bit mad, what we did. I doubt I would have pursued that man on my own. I’m having some difficulty evaluating whether we did the right thing. I feel caught up in something I don’t understand. Part of it is that we’ve ended up in this big, complicated mess. But part of it is that I don’t know you two very well. Do you know what I mean? I could use some help in any case. Stephen.

I wrote back right away:

Yes, of course I understand. I’m trying to make sense of it, too. Though you are right, I do have an advantage over you, knowing Edie better. We can talk about it whenever you want. I suggest tomorrow at lunch?

A ping came back immediately: Can I ring you now? What’s your number? I sat up in bed, shocked. He wanted to talk to me this instant. I typed back my number and waited, turning down the volume on my ringer so my mother would not hear. Then I heard the tinkling of Beethoven and picked it up a little too eagerly.

“Hello?”

“Aline?”

“Yeah, hi Stephen.” I remembered what he’d said about his parents. “Are you alone in your house right now?”

“There’s a housekeeper here. She’s downstairs.”

Was he saying his apartment had two levels? “Ah.”

“Are you with your mother?”

“Yes.” I was surprised that he knew my parents were divorced. Had this just come up in his conversation with my dad while I was being interviewed? Or had he known that before? “Papa went to his own apartment after dropping me off.”

“How often do you see him?”

“I usually stay over at his place on Saturdays. Then on Sunday we go to my grandmother’s for lunch.”

He laughed. “Wow, how very French of you.”

“I try.” I cleared my throat. “So… you were wondering about Edie?”

“Right. The more I think about it, the more, um, mental it seems that she just took off like that. And I can’t believe she actually tackled him. It still feels unreal.”

“She can be very single-minded.”

“Single-minded.” He seemed to find this a funny description.

“Yes, she can fix on things. Lose track of context.”

“Or consequences?”

“Sometimes. I’ll tell you a story….”

“Oh goodie,” he said, “A story.”

“When I came to the BSP — this was in my very first week there — an older boy stole a piece of chocolate from me. I remember there were two little squares of it that I was having with my lunch. I think my mother had given them to me to cheer me up about starting a new school. And this boy swiped the chocolate right off my tray. Edie saw him do it. Even though she wasn’t much bigger than I was she went right up him and smacked him in the face, taking it back. He was so stunned that he let her. She handed me back my chocolate and sat down next to me. And that was that.”

“Best friends forever?”

“Yes, I broke off one piece and gave it to her. It was practically like mixing our blood.”

He sniggered again. “I see.”

“Does that help?”

“Yes. It does.”

“It was good we went after her, because he could have killed her. I think you may have saved her life.”

“And you saved mine?”

He said this so softly — so intimately — that it took my breath away. “I don’t… I don’t know about that.” It really did seem less clear cut. Stephen was the one who had disarmed him. But my heart leapt at the thought that he might see it that way.

“No,” he insisted. “I’m pretty sure he had other things up his sleeve. Weapons he would have used. He seemed pretty thoroughly bad.”

“Yes, he did, didn’t he?”

“Do you think this is the end of it?”

“I hope so.”

There was no reason for the assailant to come after us, was there? He would surely assume we had passed the briefcase and its contents on to the police. It was true that we were still witnesses to the crime, but the video of him would be even more damning, and that was also out of our hands. Even as I put these semi-reassuring thoughts together, though, some lingering doubt nagged at me. It felt like there was something I was missing — whatever Edie had been hinting at. I did not share this worry with Stephen.

“I should get to bed,” he said. “Thanks, Aline. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” When he did not get off the phone right away, I said, “Good night.”

“Good night.”

I pressed the phone to my chest for a minute after hanging up with him. I had to remind myself that he had not said anything out of the ordinary. Neither of us had. One one level, we were having the normal sort of conversation you would have after a weird day. On another, I couldn’t help noticing that although we had started out the day as separate entities, by the end we were linked.

The next morning, I got up at six o’clock. I showered and dressed and sat at the kitchen counter to have breakfast. Usually I had a little end of baguette from the day before with some butter and jam, washed down by tea. That morning, however, my mother had gone down to the bakery as soon as it opened to get fresh bread and croissants. She also made some coffee in the metal Italian pot on the stove and poured it into a bowl for me with steamed milk. It was an unusually good breakfast, rounded out by a couple of juicy clementines.

“Wow, thanks Mom,” I said after I had finished the last slice of fruit.

“I thought you deserved it, the night you had.”

“It was great.”

“I called and left a message for the Headmaster, telling him what happened. I’ve also written a note for your teachers, explaining why you couldn’t do your homework. Of course, you can refer them to me if they give you any trouble about it.”

Sometimes it was handy having a parent who taught at your school. Not often, but sometimes. “That’s good, I think I’ll need it.” I took the note and went back into my room. I had left my schoolbag at the foot of my bed. As I slipped the envelope into the open back pocket of the bag, I noticed a few unfamiliar-looking pieces of paper in there. Pulling them out, I saw that they were statements from something called Invobank. There were figures detailing some kind of financial transaction.

My first instinct — after stuffing them back into the bag as though they might be radioactive — was to look up Invobank on the internet. Then I remembered what Edie had said about being careful. I knew what she meant now. If these were documents from the briefcase that had somehow ended up in my bag, then I might be alerting anyone keeping tabs on me that I had seen them.

Thinking of Edie’s warning, I began to have my suspicions about how the documents had wound up in my bag.

When my mom and I went downstairs to get the car, Edie was waiting for us in the lobby as usual. She gets a ride to school with us every morning. As my mom went out to fetch the car from the garage, I stood with Edie in the doorway of my building.

What did you do?”

She smiled, but did not look at me. “If you’re asking, I think you know what I did.”

“How did you even have time?”

“That’s just it,” she said. “I didn’t really mean to take them. I just didn’t stuff them back into the briefcase right away like the other papers because they were in English rather than Russian. I wanted to take a peep at them before putting them back. So I was holding them when that policeman yelled at us, and I panicked. I didn’t have my own bag with me — ”

“So you stuffed them in mine?”

“Yes. Sorry.”

Sorry?” I glared at her. “Edie, I have evidence in my bag! Evidence that now has my fingerprints all over it!”

“Mine too,” she said helpfully.

I put my head in my hands. “What are we going to do?”

“We’ll sort it out.” Her voice carried utterly unrealistic conviction.

I would have scolded her some more, but my mom came back with the car. The front passenger seat being piled with bags and stacks of homework, Edie and I both got in the back.

“How are you this morning, Edie?” my mom asked.

“I’m fine Ms. Gray.”

“I hope you weren’t too shaken up.”

“Not too much.”

She did seem irritatingly chipper — and not nearly repentant enough for the trouble she’d landed us in. We rode to school in almost total silence, which was unheard of for us. My mom kept looking back in the mirror to check that we hadn’t expired.

We arrived at school about twenty minutes early, and my mother took us to the Head’s office. Mr. McColl had listened to my mother’s message. “Heavens,” he said as we entered the book-lined office and took seats in front of his desk. “I’m so sorry to hear of your ordeal. Is there anything I can do?”

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Edie said, tucking her hair behind her ear and straightening in her seat. “In fact, it might be dangerous for us if it gets about that we were the ones to witness the event. So if you keep that part to yourself, that would help.”

My mother looked at her, astonished. She may not have grasped the seriousness of the night we had until that moment.

“Ah, yes,” Mr. McColl said. “I see. I just heard the message, so I haven’t discussed it with any other teachers yet. Perhaps I’ll say the two of you witnessed an accident, without naming which one? Would that do?”

Edie nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“There were three of us,” I pointed out. “Stephen Hardy was with us. He probably hasn’t done his work for today either. We were at the police station until nearly ten last night.”

“Were you?” he said. “Right. I’ll send word to his teachers as well. I’ll say that if you need to be excused you should be sent to the nurse’s office, no question. Yes?”

“Yes, thank you, sir.”

My mom walked us out, giving us one last frown of concern. However, she had to get to her office and leave all her stuff there before heading to her first class, so she hurried off. Edie and I had a few minutes to ourselves before we had to go to English.

I tried to think it out. “So I could call the inspector and say I found this paper in my bag, I don’t know how it got there, I handled it before realizing what it was. But he’ll see right through it. He will think that I stole it, or — since your prints are on it, too — that you did.”

“For some nefarious purpose of my own, no doubt. Maybe he’ll think we’re in it with the Russians?” She was not contradicting me, just amusing herself.

“It’s serious, Edie. It’s obstruction. It’s tampering with evidence.”

“Yes, yes. I’m aware. We’ll think of something.” She waved the question off to a later time. “But what do you think happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you think she was killed?”

“I have no idea.”

She stamped her foot, impatient with me. “What is your guess?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have one. Do you?”

“Well, she was from the Russian embassy, right?” Edie said. “And she’s carrying these papers? The guy who killed her wanted them. They must be… sensitive somehow. So what does that tell you?”

I shrugged. “That she was sneaking them out of the embassy for some reason?”

Edie nodded, considering it. “That makes sense, doesn’t it?” She held out her hand. “Can I see the statement again?”

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“Edie, you don’t really think we’re going to solve this, do you?”

“No harm in trying.”

“There is harm, though. Someone has already been killed for being in possession of this batch of papers.”

She smiled. “It could have been the ones in Russian.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Or maybe there was a thumb drive in the bag that we didn’t even see.”

“Edie.”

She was smirking at me, pleased with herself, but as I stood there beaming disapproval in her direction her expression changed. “Hello Stephen,” she said.

I suddenly felt caught and supremely self-conscious. It wasn’t merely the memory of our late night phone conversation or bumping into him in the back of Bernard’s car that set me off, but the papers currently burning a hole in the back pocket of my bag.

I turned around to him. He looked much fresher and more alert than he had last night. Instead of greeting him like a normal person and returning his friendly smile, I blurted out, “We have a problem.”

He laughed. “Hello, Aline. Edie. What’s going on?”

The bell rang for our first class. “What do you have now?”

“History,” he said, his eyebrows knitting together, wondering why I asked.

“Halfway through class, come down with a headache or something and go to the nurse’s office. I’ll meet you there.”

His eyebrows practically fused. “Um, all right,” he said.

“Don’t blame Aline,” Edie said cheerfully. “It’s all my fault.”

“O-kay.” He started to edge toward to his classroom, still facing us. “I’ll see you soon, then. God help me.”

As Edie and I sat down in our English class, she whispered, “It will look suspicious if we both faint dead away at precisely the same time, so I’ll let you handle Stephen.” I was not sure if she was trying to get out of it, or ceding boy territory to me.

Our class was doing a unit on the Brontës. We had just finished Wuthering Heights and were starting to read and discuss Jane Eyre. Since I had read the book the year before, I was not as behind in this class as I would be in some of my others. It felt almost soothing to listen to my classmates talk about conventions of the Gothic novel. My friend Kalpana, who sat on my left, made a few points about the role of houses in these stories — how they can sometimes feel alive, or have moods of their own, and in some cases still carry their history in the form of ghosts. As I listened to her I met the eye of my teacher, Mrs. Paley, who gave me a concerned look. While I had her attention, I put my hand up to my temple, going for a gesture somewhere between pain and stoicism.

I did this again five minutes later, the second time she glanced my way. Finally, at roughly the halfway mark on the clock, I stood and asked her if I could go to the health center. She nodded quickly, glancing down at what was probably the note from the Head. I felt a twinge of guilt for using her sympathy for me, but I had to keep my promise to meet Stephen.

He was there waiting as I entered the room where the nurse had her desk. He was in a chair on the far side of the room. He watched me closely as I explained my trouble and was given some paracetamol and a cup of water. The nurse asked me if I wanted to lie down, but I said if I could just sit for a bit it would help.

I took the seat next to Stephen, keeping my head down. I could feel him looking at me, as though I was being scanned by some kind of laser — or as though I was being gently swept by a pair of tiny rakes. It was deeply uncomfortable and almost beautiful at the same time. We stayed in this state of tension for about three minutes, until a younger girl came in and the nurse brought her into the inner room to take her temperature.

“So what is it?” Stephen said.

I looked up at him. I spoke quickly. “Edie took some of the papers from the briefcase. She wanted to look at a couple that were in English, but then the cop yelled at us — and she stuffed them in my bag. I noticed them there this morning.”

“What?” His pinched the bridge his nose with two fingers before looking at me again. “Are you saying we stole something?”

“Yes.”

“From a murder victim?”

“Yes.”

“Christ.” He pointed to my bag. “Do you have the papers now?”

I nodded. “Do you want them? I could say you didn’t know about it — which you didn’t — but in that case you probably shouldn’t touch them.”

He curled his hand, asking for them. “No, let me see.” I took out the few loose sheets and handed them to him. He tucked them into his backpack. “What were you thinking of doing about it?”

“I assume we have to give them to the police. They might be important to the investigation.”

He gave a quick nod, apparently agreeing. “Let me take a look. We’ll talk about it at lunch.”

“Okay.”

He got up, sticking his head into the other room to tell the nurse he was feeling better. He put his hand up to shoot me a quick goodbye, and he was off. The abruptness with which he left felt like a slap. But what was I expecting? He was hardly going to be happy about this development.

I really did begin to get sick after that, and took the nurse up on her offer of a bed. I lay down in the inner room next to the girl with a fever, thinking it would serve me right to get whatever she had. I lay in the dim room going over the phone conversation I’d had with Stephen the night before, recognizing that whatever bond we’d formed had probably already snapped. It only lasted about twelve hours, and I’d been asleep for eight and a half of them!

When the bell rang, I trudged back upstairs, heading to Geography. Edie was also in that class. We sat through a discussion of the history of French and Germany industrial areas that I could not concentrate on at all, and then split up to go to our different science classes — I’m in Triple Science whereas she’s in Double — and my chemistry lab partner looked daggers at me the whole time because I could not follow the steps of the experiment. She had to do the whole thing by herself, and was incensed when the teacher came by to pat me on the shoulder and ask how I was.

I wandered down to the cafeteria in a daze. Edie appeared at my elbow and started chatting away about how little she had done in her own science class. We stood in line and picked up our lunches. I chose a pre-prepared egg and spinach sandwich along with a French-style beet salad, while she got a plate full of chips. I looked around the room but could not see Stephen. Edie asked quietly, “Did he take it badly? You never said.”

“Yes, he did.”

“We didn’t have to tell him, you know.” She sounded defensive. “We could have kept him out of it.”

“He called me last night,” I said. “After I got home.”

“Ah.” Her look was gentle, understanding. “What did he say?”

“He was wondering whether we had done a good thing or not.”

“So… you told him we did. And now you feel like you were lying to him?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, sorry — ” she started to say. She stopped as she spotted him heading straight toward us. He had not bothered getting lunch.

He slid into the bench across from us, looking harried and uneasy. “Right. I’ve thought about it. I know what we can do.”

I was surprised. “You do?”

“Yes.”

He hesitated before saying whatever it was.

“We’re all ears,” Edie prompted him.

“I say we don’t give it back to the inspector, or to the DGSI. They might charge us if they think we interfered in the investigation.”

“But it might be important for the case — ” I objected.

He looked up at me. “I know. I think we give it to someone else who can help instead.”

Edie chuckled. “What did you have in mind, the suggestions box at the town hall?”

“No. We give it to someone at the embassy.”

“The British embassy?” I asked.

“Yes.” He leaned toward us and lowered his voice. “I’m sure there are… spooks there. They would have their own connections to the DGSI. That way the information could get where it needs to go, but we could bypass the police. No one would have to know it came from us.”

“That’s brilliant,” Edie said. “Cheers, Stephen.” She tapped my arm. “See, there was a solution.”

He and I shared an exasperated look. Then, for just a second, his irritation broke and he smiled at me. “What do you say?”

I shook my head, admiring the beauty of it. “Brilliant.”