There was no backing out now, I thought as I slipped the two tickets out of their envelope for a last look before putting them into my tote bag. They looked harmless enough. Although why shouldn't they? It was hardly their fault I was being shipped to Paris.
London St. Pancras-Paris Gare du Nord
Train 3309 Departure Time 15h05
Coach 12 Seat 35
Nope. No getting out of it-that was definitely my name printed there.
"Axelle, hurry up, would you? We don't want to be late!"
And that was definitely my mom's voice.
"Coming!" Quickly I lurched across my room to the wardrobe opposite my bed. I didn't care what my mom said-I was taking it. As far as I was concerned, I needed all the good vibes I could get. From the back of the bottom drawer, I pulled out my lucky sweater and shoved it into my tote.
"Your father has started the car!"
"Coming!" With a last look around my room and a quick kiss on the top of Halley's furry white head, I bounded down the stairs.
• • •
It was sunny and bright that afternoon; a brisk spring breeze whistled through the St. Pancras station as, thirty minutes later, I waited for the boarding call for my train with Mom and Dad. I squinted as I looked up at the sun shining through the curved glass roof far above us. Behind me, the station's enormous clock ticked silently; its old-fashioned face provided a striking contrast to the hundreds of people below us at the street level entrance wearing brightly colored backpacks and running shoes.
"Axelle, did you pack your new sweater?"
"Don't forget to charge your phone."
"And did you have to take your old tote bag? After I've just bought you a new one?"
"Forty-four, Axelle! Don't forget to put a +44 before dialing any English number."
"And for goodness' sake, DO brush your hair while you're away, Axelle. Every day."
No, I hadn't packed my new sweater. I'd packed my old and lucky sweater, but there was no point admitting to that now. Like, how old did they think I was? And hadn't I been to Paris often enough that I knew how to dial out?
"And remember, Axelle," said my mom, "this is your week. Enjoy yourself!"
Right, I thought. If this is my week, then why am I going somewhere I don't want to go to do something I absolutely don't want to do?
"You might end up liking it so much you'll never come back!" my dad said.
Yeah, ha-ha, Dad.
The final call for my train was announced over the loudspeakers. I gave my parents a last hug then turned, stepped through the automatic doors, and stood in line for security. Minutes later, I climbed into my train car on Platform 5, one floor up from the entrance level. I could just see my parents near the Searcys bar next to the platform. My mom was walking along, looking into the windows. She saw me just as the train began to pull out of the station.
I waved good-bye to them as the train began its two-and-a-half-hour journey to Paris. I kept waving until they were nothing more than pinpricks of color on the now distant platform and then, with the final turn out of the train station, they disappeared from view altogether. I leaned back deeply in my seat and stretched my legs out in front of me, careful not to hit the stockinged ankles of the lady sitting across from me.
This wasn't my first trip to Paris-I'd been many times before. But this was my first trip alone...and contrary to what probably happens to most sixteen-year-old girls, I was being sent to Paris for Fashion Week as punishment.
• • •
What I love most in the world is a mystery. Getting to the bottom of a story, finding a secret, following a riddle, solving a puzzle-that's what makes me buzz. Discerning the differences between what people do and what they say is fun, a never-ending game of find-the-motive. My mom likes to say sleuthing is my "hobby," but that's like saying Lady Gaga likes to sing in her spare time. And despite my mom's many delusional attempts to push me to do something else, all I've ever wanted to be is a private detective.
"I blame your granny," she always says. "Every time I turned my back, she'd switch off Sesame Street and put in one of her Agatha Christie DVDs. Instead of Elmo and Big Bird, you had Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple."
Then I always say, "It hasn't done me any harm!" which makes my mom roll her eyes. "Besides," I continue, "what's so wrong with wanting to be a private detective?"
"Axelle, detective work is for old men shuffling around in trench coats," she likes to remind me, "although, mind you, Burberry has some nice ones out right now-but still, Axelle, is that really what you want to be?"
"What about Nancy Drew? She's not an old man in a trench coat."
"True. But she didn't get that convertible by solving mysteries."
"Maybe she didn't, but I will."
"Right." Then at this point, there is always a short pause, after which my mom invariably starts with the one idea I'm absolutely allergic to: "Axelle, why don't you give modeling a try?" This is my mom's big wish, that I become a model. (Failing that, she'd love me to take over her successful interior design business-but modeling wins by a long shot.) "Your Aunt Venetia could help you, and with your long legs-"
"I'm short, Mom, remember?"
"You're not that short, Axelle, and if you cut your hair..." Blah, blah, blah.
It's always the same; around and around we go. It's the one story I never seem to get anywhere with.
At least my best friend, Jennifer Watanabe, is supportive-up to a point.
"I mean, you are good at finding stuff out, Axelle. Remember how you found Mrs. Singh's missing mail? And remember my mascara?"
"Halley found your mascara in the garden. That hardly qualifies as great detection."
"Still. I wouldn't have found it without you-I mean, she's your dog."
"Anyway, my point is, even if you are good at figuring things out-and you are-what could be the harm in, you know...trying to improve yourself a little?"
The problem with Jenny's ideas for my self-improvement is that they always involve my appearance. Lying on her bed as we had this discussion for the hundredth time, I watched as she looked at me through half-closed eyes, like an artist before a lump of fast-drying clay. "Your silence is becoming ominous, Jenny," I said. Jenny herself left no room for improvement-she was perfect, as far as I could tell. Her straight black hair fell in a shiny sheet to the middle of her back, her face was devoid of pores, and her delicate build never failed to make me feel gangly by comparison.
"If you'd just let your hair-"
"Don't start with my hair, Jenny."
"And your glasses-"
"I like wearing my glasses!"
Jenny shrugged her shoulders. "Fine. Have it your way. But you could easily look totally amazing. You'd have everyone at school eating out of your hand. I mean, look at you, Axelle. You're slim and you've got the longest legs of anyone I know. Lots of people think you're a model..."
Jenny left the rest unsaid-namely that lots of people think I'm a model...until I turn around.
"It's your hair, Axelle. It's too overwhelming. And those glasses-do they have to be so big? And so heavy? And why can't you let me do your makeup instead of-"
"You know why I do what I do. I mean, how am I supposed to be a detective if I walk around looking like some supermodel? Then I'll have everyone staring at me and I'll never get to the bottom of anything. As a private eye, I'm supposed to blend in, remember?"
"You sort of have a point..."
"I totally have a point."
Sometimes talking to Jenny could be scarily similar to talking with my mom.
• • •
For the most part, my detective work hasn't caused problems at school or at home. The investigative column I write for the school newspaper gives me some good cover when nosing around, and as long as I keep my grades up-which I do-there isn't much my parents can say. But there have been a few incidents lately that, for whatever reason, seem to have exploded out of all proportion, like mushrooms after a rainy day. And unfortunately, the worst one had to happen when I was with my mom...
A few weeks ago, Mom and I went shopping together at Mom's favorite department store. She loves shopping there so much that I would actually count it as a hobby of hers. Anyway, we were at a cosmetics counter, and my mom was being given a facial by a woman with dark hair scraped back into a hard bun. She wore lots of jewelry and enunciated her words v-e-r-y c-l-e-a-r-l-y. She was telling my mom that she knew the products worked because just last night, she had celebrated her fortieth birthday, and see how fresh and youthful her skin looked. Needless to say, that got me thinking, because honestly, her complexion did look fresh and youthful-suspiciously so. While my mom told her, "Wow, you look amazing for your age," I slipped behind the counter and took a look around. Within thirty seconds, I'd found what I was looking for.
"Excuse me," I said, "but is your name Leanne?"
"Why, yes," she answered, surprised. "How did you know?" I saw one of my mom's eyes slowly open, a cautious wariness beginning to register in it. With that green stuff slathered all over her face and her hair pulled back into a hairnet, she looked like a testy turtle. Anyway, I was hot on the trail of truth and wasn't about to let my mother stop me.
"Right. So, Leanne, why did you just lie to us about your age?"
Underneath its layer of powder, the saleslady's face turned white. My mom's second eye opened, the irritation changing into outright anger.
"According to your employee card, you're actually only thirty-two-or is that a lie too?" I didn't want to get her in trouble or anything-I simply wanted the truth-but no sooner was it out of my mouth than a tight-lipped silence filled the air. The saleslady was not amused. Neither was Mom.
We had to cross the entire cosmetics floor and then walk along a long stretch of Knightsbridge in the glare of broad daylight with Mom's face slathered in a bright green face mask. As Mom drove out of our parking space (a little too quickly, I thought), she seemed stressed, so I said, "Mom, calm down. I'm sure that with a lot of warm water and some elbow grease, that green guck will come off your face."
Suddenly the car swerved, narrowly avoiding a few pedestrians and a bus. I thought Mom was about to have a heart attack. But no. "This has nothing to do with the mask on my face, Axelle! It has to do with you! You should calm down and STOP STICKING YOUR NOSE INTO OTHER PEOPLE'S BUSINESS." Mom was wiping furiously at her face with a tissue she had found in the glove compartment, but she wasn't having much luck-the mask had dried to a pretty hard consistency.
"I don't do it intentionally-it just kind of happens. I get a feeling about something, and then I need to follow it to its natural conclusion."
Mom gave me a look that even the hardened streaks of the face mask couldn't disguise the meaning of.
"‘Just kind of happens'? This time you've gone too far, Axelle, really TOO FAR. You have no limits when it comes to snooping around. None. Zero."
"But Mom, she was lying to you!"
"And so what, Axelle? Who cares? It was only a facial, and the poor woman was only trying to do her job. She's not Mrs. Peacock in the conservatory with the candlestick! Life isn't a game of Clue!"
"I was only trying to help. It's not my fault if I felt something was off with what she said-and by the way, I was right!"
"Axelle, that ‘I felt something' line doesn't work anymore. It's time you discovered there's more to life than solving mysteries that don't even exist."
Needless to say, the ride home was quiet after that, although as we drove past Marble Arch, my mom let slip (in the same way one lets slip a lion from its cage) that perhaps it was time that she and my dad helped me "take full responsibility for your actions." Well, as time would prove, it wasn't an empty threat. The seed of the idea must have already begun to sprout, and by the time we turned out of Hyde Park at Bayswater, I've no doubt that her plan was fully formed.
Four nights ago (and three weeks after the face mask incident), it was my birthday. And because it fell on a school night, we were having dinner at home. Mom was going to make pizzas, and Jenny and her parents were coming over. "We have a special surprise for you tonight, Axelle," Mom said that morning.
My mom's idea of a special surprise tends to have sleeves. But maybe I'd get lucky and my parents would give me the periscope I'd been asking for. ("If they don't give you one," said Jenny, "then we can make one with mirrors from my supply of makeup freebies.") Anyway, I crossed my fingers and hoped this was the surprise my mom was so mysteriously alluding to.
After dinner, the cake was brought out. As the birthday girl, I had the privilege of cutting it. Now all I had to do was sit back, eat my cake, and wait for my present.
As I was scraping up the last crumbs of cake with my fork, my dad decided to drop the bomb. He pushed his chair back and cleared his throat. "Axelle, your mother and I have a wonderful gift for you. We've put a lot of thought into this, and we feel sure we've found a gift that will mean something special to you..."
Can I just say that at this point, all of my alert systems were on. Any time my parents start using words like "wonderful," "thoughtful," or "special," I get nervous.
My dad cleared his throat again before continuing. "For your sixteenth birthday, we have decided to send you-alone-to your favorite city...the city you know so well..." My dad paused, hand frozen in midair as he smiled at me and waited.
Paris was the only city besides London that I knew well. My aunt lived there. I'd grown up going regularly with my mom to visit her. I even had a French name. And while I liked Paris-really liked it, even-there was something about my dad's frozen smile that made me nervous. "Uh...Paris?" I carefully asked.
"Exactly! Paris! And you'll be there for Fashion Week."
A haze of silence descended upon me as I digested this surprise. As if from the end of a long tunnel, I heard my mom say, "And you'll leave on Sunday."
How did we go from periscope to Paris? HOW? Even a surprise with sleeves would have been better.
"And," my father continued, "thanks to your Aunt Venetia, you will be spending your time there working as her personal fashion assistant at Chic: Paris magazine!"
Right. It wasn't a joke.
After this last cruel bit, I was in a state of such anger and stupefaction that, honestly, it's a miracle my hair didn't spontaneously combust and just disintegrate off the top of my head. To make matters worse, the Watanabes (yes, et tu, Jenny) were oohing and aahing and making all kinds of aren't-you-the-lucky-one comments.
"But I don't want to go to Paris! I know nothing about fashion nor am I even the least bit interested in it! I LIKE WEARING A SCHOOL UNIFORM SO THAT I DON'T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT WHAT TO WEAR!!!"
"Axelle, calm down, please. It's only for a week. And besides," Mom added brightly, "this is an opportunity any girl would love."
"But I am not any girl! And I don't want to go to Paris or work in fashion! And I don't want to work with Aunt Venetia! She's a dragon!"
"Listen, Axelle," my dad said, "you know we wouldn't ask you to do this unless we felt it was important. We feel you've been going a little overboard with your ‘detective work' lately, and, well, this could be a wonderful opportunity for you to see new things, expand your horizons..."
ARGH! PARENTS. How corny can they get? "Yeah, but-"
"No buts, Axelle," my dad said sternly. "If you don't go to Paris, then Aunt Venetia is ready to set up a week-long internship at one of the magazines here in London."
"I wonder if Vogue would have you..." my mom chimed in.
I felt my mouth fall open again. "You can't be serious?"
"Actually, Axelle," my parents answered in unison, "we are."
"You decide," my mom finished for them both. "Paris or London."
I slumped into one of the living room armchairs and closed my eyes. I couldn't believe this was happening! Jenny must have wisely decided I needed some time to myself, because she stayed at the table. Suddenly I felt claustrophobic. I pushed myself out of the armchair, grabbed my dad's cardigan, climbed the stairs to our tiny roof terrace, and gave in to my emotions on my own. The one person in the world who would have understood how I felt-and would certainly have vetoed the entire Paris idea-was Granny. And she wasn't here. I missed her so much.
Wrapping the cardigan tighter around myself, I lay down on the chaise longue, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. I told myself that a week wasn't forever. I'd go to Paris-that much was sure. There was no way I'd stay in London and submit to Mom's daily interrogations on everything I'd been doing at Vogue or wherever. Besides, with a little luck, my workaholic Aunt Venetia just might forget about me for long enough to let me do some exploring on my own. Seven days in Paris with my fashion editor aunt couldn't be that bad...could it?
Yes, it could.
I know I was angry when I called my aunt a dragon, but honestly, my Aunt Venetia really is a dragon-and a dragon of the worst kind. She's a fashion dragon-which means that instead of breathing plain old flames, she breathes silk and patent leather and address books filled with unpronounceable names.
I'll admit that after years of listening to my aunt go on and on about fashion, I know quite a lot about it. But still...that doesn't mean I want to be a part of it-not even for a week!
I lay outside for some time, looking at the stars. Eventually, I heard Jenny and her parents leave, and then the house became quiet. Thankfully, no one came up to see me. Even Halley wasn't scratching at the door to join me.
You decide: Paris or London.
My parents' ultimatum continued to ring in my ears. Again my thoughts switched back to my granny. She would have known just what to tell me, how to make me see the bright side of things. (Is there a bright side to fashion that doesn't involve sequins or neon Lycra?) Of course, more often than not, Granny's favorite solution consisted of a pot of tea and the latest episode of Midsomer Murders. "Come sit with me, Axelle," she'd say with a twinkle in her eye. "It'll do you good to get your mind off school" (or my parents or whatever the problem of the moment was) "for an hour." And she was right-I always left feeling better.
Anyway, my decision was made-Paris it would be. Quietly, I made my way to my bedroom, undressed, and slipped into bed beside Halley's snoring warmth. Her sweet little West Highland White Terrier eyes were shut tight. Halley, I thought ruefully, had been a much better birthday gift (for my tenth) than Paris Fashion Week. My last thought before closing my eyes was a silent prayer that I'd manage to survive both Fashion Week in Paris and my aunt-and that one day soon, I'd find a case to solve that was so interesting, so big, so undeniably juicy that my parents would finally bow to the inevitable and give up in their efforts to change me.
That wasn't asking too much, was it?