Pat arrived at his hotel at a few minutes before noon, which gave him just enough time to put the roses into a vase with water and wash his face and hands before going down to the lobby to meet Officer Laurence. When he unwrapped the roses, a prayer card of some kind fell out; he put this in his pocket without thinking much about it. He told the desk clerk that he was expecting an Officer Laurence of the Paris police and pointed to a stuffed chair in a corner where he would be waiting for her. There he sat and began to ponder his strange meeting with the flower girl, but within seconds, or so it seemed, he was interrupted by a tall angular woman in her mid-thirties dressed in a chic dark blue suit over a white silk blouse. Her nose was on the large side and slightly bumpy, and would have dominated her face except that it was nicely in proportion to her high, wide cheekbones and full-lipped broad mouth. The eyes in this face, forthright eyes that met his squarely, were an arresting shade of gray-green that Pat had never seen before. Her gold bracelets jangled as she extended her hand to him and introduced herself with a half smile and a nod of her head.
“Do you speak French, Monsieur Nolan?”
“You prefer English?”
“Mais oui. Of course. You seem surprised, Monsieur. I am not dressed to chase criminals today.”
“I was expecting someone in a uniform. Inspector LeGrand said you were an officer.”
“I am an officer of the judiciary police. In America I would be a detective.”
Pat was surprised at Laurence’s appearance, but it wasn’t at the way she was dressed. Nor was it solely how lovely she was, although she was quite lovely to look at. It was, he realized, how interesting the look in her beautiful eyes was. There was no French arrogance in them, but its opposite, something akin to humility or a complicated, frustrating sadness not unlike his own. This look, whether imagined or real, and the thought it sparked in his overworked mind, took Pat for a moment—a very brief moment—out of himself, a process that on some wider level he observed with gratitude.
“Shall we go?” Laurence said softly, bringing him swiftly but gently back to the grim task at hand.
The ride to the hospital in Laurence’s black Peugeot station wagon was short and quiet. Once there, Laurence spoke rapidly in French to a desk clerk, then shepherded Pat into an elevator which took them to the basement.
“Wait,” she said when they exited the elevator; then, turning, she walked quickly down a long corridor, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor. She disappeared behind double swinging doors, reemerging a moment later and gesturing to Pat to come. It was a long walk for Pat, longer even than the one he had taken twenty-nine years ago to confirm for himself that his wife of eight months was dead. Laurence held open one of the swinging doors for him and he entered a squarish, harshly lit room with a wall of stainless steel body lockers at one end and an autopsy station at the other, where a lab technician in a white smock stood next to a gurney. Pat took this scene in for a moment and then felt officer Laurence’s hand on his left forearm. At the gurney, Laurence nodded to the technician, who pulled down gently on the pale green sheet. Pat’s eyes went first to the shaved head, then to the crude sutures at the right temple, and then finally to the face, white and stony in death these last four days. It was not Megan. It was a woman generally of Megan’s age and size and coloring, but it was not her.
“This is your daughter, Monsieur Nolan?”
Pat’s mind had stopped working for a second, but it started again when he heard officer Laurence’s voice. Other voices then filled his head.
My birthday’s coming up. You can bring me a present.
A quick cremation.
Have faith, Monsieur. You will be led to her.
Megan was alive but wanted the world to think she was dead. The world except for Pat and the flower girl on the Street of Flowers. “Yes,”he answered, nodding, and at the same time reaching out and placing his right hand over the body’s left hand. He pressed through the sheet to feel for the heavy silver ring that he had bought for Lorrie on their honeymoon and then given to Megan when she turned sixteen. To the best of his knowledge, she had not taken it off since. He confirmed its absence, then stepped away from the gurney, keeping his eyes on the unknown woman who had visited Megan on December 30 and killed herself in furtherance of what dark and strange conspiracy—a conspiracy he had now joined—Pat could not fathom. Why, Megan? And where are you?
“She has lost weight from her cancer,” said Laurence.
The detective nodded to the technician, who pulled the sheet up and began wheeling the gurney toward the lockers.
“Detective Laurence,” Pat said.
“I would like to have my daughter cremated today if possible. Can you help me?”
“Yes. Upstairs we will sign papers to release the body. We will call a crematorium from my cell phone.”
“And her personal effects?”
“I have them in my car. I will take you to her room if you like.”
“Yes. I would.”
“Perhaps you would like something to eat first, a drink?”
Yes, I could use a drink, a long night of drinking, Pat thought, realizing, as Laurence stared intently at him that the stunned look on his face was not what she thought it was, sorry that he had had to lie to her.
“No,” he said, thanking her with his eyes for the sympathy in hers. “Let’s get it over with.”