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The railroad tracks of the Gare de l'Est stretched and curved beneath the bridge in gray, eerie silence. It was after midnight, the time of poor carters and night porters hauling their loads of garbage and human waste to the Basin de La Villette, hoping to make the last boat to the dumping grounds on the outskirts of Paris. Maura Laurenzano and the young Russian, Pyotr Ivanovich, were transporting a much deadlier cargo. The two of them stopped and watched as Maura's sister, Angela, ran ahead, flitting from shadow to shadow like a frightened, wounded bird. When she signaled that no one was coming, they grasped the poles of their cart and continued across the bridge.
At seventeen, Maura was a year younger than Angela, but bigger and stronger. In the steamy June night, her sweat trickled down into the sleeves of one of Pyotr's rough muslin shirts, prickling her arms. His vest veiled her femininity. She liked wearing his clothes, feeling him on her skin, smelling him. And besides, it was necessary. To complete her disguise, she had tucked her unruly black curls under one of Pyotr's caps. Any passerby might pause and gawk at a girl hauling a cart. But not at two slender youths making their way in the night.
Angela waited in the dark, far from the flickering yellow light cast by a gas lamp. When Maura and Pyotr reached the end of the bridge, he motioned with his head to turn right into a narrow cobbled street. Under the moonless sky, they barely made out the warehouses and sullen dark shacks that lined their path. Maura's arms burned with the strain of lifting and pulling the cart to keep the wheels from rumbling over the stones. Her heavy breathing filled her with the stink of Paris. Pyotr, too, panted silently as he led them zigzagging through the narrowest and most deserted streets. Finally, under the gaslights, they saw the wide, shimmering expanse of the Basin. Maura gasped when they got to the edge of a building that bordered the wharf. The first thing that caught her eye was the fiery glow of cigarettes as workers in caps and smocks stood around their wagons talking and laughing after their night's labors. Pyotr had told her that La Villette would be empty after the last sewage boat left. There were even a few bourgeois in bowlers lingering along the quays and a hatless man with a fishing pole at the edge of the water. The covered mounds in the barges bringing supplies into the city teemed with hidden threats.
"Pyotr, are you sure this is right? There are people here. Shouldn't we take him down to the canals?"
He held up his hand to calm her. He was like a prince. A young, anarchist prince, who had given up his nobility to live among the poor and learn about revolution from the French. Maura did not understand this golden-haired boy. She only knew that he was the only man she would ever trust.
"They'll think we are dumping garbage illegally," he whispered. "They are workers like us. They won't tell the police."
Sometimes Pyotr was so trusting she thought him stupid. But he wasn't concerned about what she thought. He went over to her sister and smoothed a lock of hair, fairer even than his own, under her flowered scarf. "Don't worry, my Angelina. He can't hurt you anymore. No one will hurt you," he said in the slow, careful cadence that marked him as a foreigner.
Maura did not have to see her sister's face to imagine the bruises. It made her heart surge with hate again. Hate against the boss who had seduced Angela with a promise of marriage and then kept her in his room as if she were his slave. Maura's chest began to heave. Not from effort this time, but from everything else: her hate, her shame that at this moment she felt jealousy, and, most of all, her fear. Her cheeks puffed out as she pressed her lips together to hold back the tears. What had they done? They were in so much trouble.
Suddenly she felt Pyotr's hands on her shoulders. "It will be all right," he said, looking into her eyes. "We aren't going to the canals because we don't want the body to move when they open the locks. We don't want anyone to find it." She wished her eyes were blue like his and Angela's. She wished he would stay there forever, touching her, caring for her. She nodded as he took two bundles of clothes from the cart and left them with Angela in the dark. Then he signaled to lift the cart's poles once more as they rolled it to a deserted section of the Basin.
Marcel Barbereau, who had been so hot-blooded, silver-tongued and tempestuous in life, had become stiff, heavy and mercifully silent in death. Even so, the monster moved as they took hold of him. A rigid arm jerked upward under the sheet they had torn from his filthy bed. Maura thought she would faint. Pyotr froze, then composed himself. He even smiled. For Maura, again. "A revolutionary must get used to death," he said, although his rasping voice and trembling hands belied his bravado.
"Yes." That's all she, the girl he called bold and brave, managed to utter. As if of one mind, they swathed the corpse more tightly, then, shaking a bit and cringing, Maura helped Pyotr lift Marcel Barbereau out of the cart. Counting one-two-three under their breath, they swung the body into the water. She closed her eyes until she heard the splash. It was only right that the dense, hard muscles the bastard had used on her sister would sink him into the deep. Yet the sinking seemed to take forever. And when they finally sensed his disappearance, under a rippling disturbance of the calm waters, a chill coursed through her body. Damp with the sweat of June heat and terror's cold, Maura tasted the nausea erupting in her belly. But she had to suppress the bile. She had to be brave, act the part, be a boy. Or a man, like Pyotr.
Maura stood by the cart as Pyotr went back to get Angela. Suddenly a tall, thin man emerged, with quick, definite strides, from the very street that they had taken to the Basin. Maura crouched down behind the cart and watched, peeking between the spokes of a wheel. She saw her sister recoil as the intruder noticed her and tipped his hat. Maura held her breath as Pyotr approached them. When she saw Pyotr thrust out his hand in greeting, she allowed herself to breathe again. A friend. Maybe he is a friend, she whispered to herself. Still she clutched the wheel, praying that he'd go away. At last, he gave a wave and started to stroll in the direction of the canals. Shaken, but relieved, Maura slid into a hard seat on the cobblestones. She did not move until Pyotr beckoned her.
"Come," he whispered.
"Who was that? What were you talking about?" she asked as she struggled to her feet.
"Someone who comes to our café. I had to talk to him. He wanted to meet Angela, because he thought she was my girl," Pyotr said, as he laid a calming hand on her shoulder. "He even asked about the dark-haired girl who comes to listen to me make my little speeches. I told him I didn't know where you are. And I don't," he said smiling, "since you have become a strong, brave boy."
Maura thrust his arm away. She was not in the mood for one of Pyotr's gentle jokes. "How can you be sure he is not a police spy? Didn't you tell me they haunted all the workers' cafes? Maybe he saw us, maybe he—"
This time Pyotr took her hand as he peered into her eyes. "I have seen his wounds. He was injured at the gasworks. He is a worker who is learning about his oppression. Soon he may become one of us."
Maura shook her head at the pride she heard in Pyotr's voice. How could he think about anyone else's problems when they had so many of their own?
"Come," Pyotr urged again. "Day breaks quickly on a June night."
He led her and Angela under a gas lamp where he pulled two folded pieces of paper from his pocket. He had drawn a map to guide them across the river to his comrades. He had talked to them about the Russian girls many times. They were anarchists like him, believing that the rich ruled and oppressed the poor, and working for the day when everyone would be equal and live in decent, sanitary conditions. He spoke about them with admiration, for they were women studying to be doctors, so that they could go back to Russia and minister to the peasants. Tomorrow and the next day and the next, Pyotr explained, they would hide Maura and heal Angela.
The second sheet was their introduction to the Russian girls, written in a language that, under the undulating light, looked like chicken scratches. Maura stared at the sheet. This was Pyotr's language. One of the worlds he lived in. She dreamed that one day he would take them far away and become a nobleman again, although he said that he did not care about land or wealth. She did not understand him. If she had been born with a silver spoon her mouth, she would have kept it there and enjoyed all the comforts of a great estate. Perhaps, she thought, he did not love her because he knew how selfish she was.
"Maura," he was saying, "this is important. Stay in the shadows, and when the sun comes, act like two lovers as you cross the bridge and go into the Latin Quarter. Then no one will stop you."
"But what about you?" Angela asked, reaching for Pyotr's arm. "Come with us."
Once again he tucked an errant lock of hair under Angela's scarf. "Don't worry. You'll be safe."
"No, come." Even though they had made a plan, suddenly Maura also wanted him to join them. She wanted to be sure that he would be safe.
"No, no. I must take the cart back to the courtyard before my patron wakes up."
"Why?" Maura wanted to shake him. He was always speaking out against the bosses. "He's a boss."
"Yes, a patron, but a good man, and poor like us. We must not involve him. Go," he urged. "I will join you in a few days."
With trembling fingers, Maura folded the two sheets of paper and pocketed them. She rubbed her hands along the pants she was wearing, Pyotr's pants, as if by magic they would give her courage. Then she picked up the heavier bundle of clothes from Angela's side and threw it over her shoulder. "Come," she barked. "We have to go." She ignored the tears in her sister's eyes and waited impatiently as Angela picked up the other bundle and folded her arms around it.
Behind them, nearer to the water, Pyotr had already grabbed hold of the two poles and was pulling the cart back toward the railroad station, like a beast of burden. Maura did not know whether to be sad or angry or afraid. Tingling with an awareness that someone might be watching, she strode ahead of Angela, acting the part of a swaggering lover as they began their journey.CHAPTER 2
Clarie Martin was in a hurry that Friday afternoon. Eager to get home to her little boy, happy that the school year was coming to an end.
She flew out of the teachers' meeting, intending only to gather her papers and stuff them in her sack. But when she entered her empty classroom, she heard a low, guttural moan. Someone was on her knees at the front of the room below the blackboard.
Claire pushed past her students' desks to reach her. It was the charwoman, Francesca. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?" Clarie asked as she bent down to help the woman to her feet.
Francesca panted and gasped, then shook her head, unable to speak.
"Here," Clarie took her gently by the arm and led her to a desk in the front row. "What happened?" She sat down across from her.
Standing, Francesca was a head shorter than Clarie. Shrinking into the student chair, she seemed even smaller. She covered her face with her hands and began to cry. The knotted bun on the top of her head held together strands of hair as dark as Clarie's, but streaked with gray, oily and unwashed. Catching the pungent smell of the woman's coarse gray dress, Clarie realized that she had never been this close to Francesca before and knew nothing of her beyond her Christian name. To the Lycée Lamartine's overworked teachers, the charwomen were mere shadows, appearing at the end of the day to dust and scrub the rooms, readying them for the onslaught of well-fed young ladies who swept in each morning in starched, clean uniforms. It wasn't right that one did not notice those who toiled into the night. Still, Clarie hesitated to delve into Francesca's troubles. She had to get home to Jean-Luc.
"It's all my fault. She did it because of me."
The sobbing had stopped. The charwoman spoke as if she were in a trance. Clarie folded her hands in her lap, determined to listen for a moment. "You couldn't have done anything so terrible," she said soothingly.
Suddenly, Francesca reached for Clarie's arm. Startled, Clarie pulled away. Then she was ashamed.
"Per favore, please, professoressa. Maybe you could help me. You have such a kind face." Francesca's dark-ringed hazel eyes bore into Clarie's.
"I really don't know what I can do." This was true. Clarie meant to be kind, but....
"Per favore, please."
It was Francesca's accent, reminding Clarie of her dear Italian father, that overcame her hesitations. Clarie could not imagine Giuseppe Falchetti ever refusing a cry for help. She took hold of the charwoman's hand to comfort her. It was rough and chapped, another sign, like her worn face and hunched shoulders, of a life filled with hard labors. "Tell me," Clarie urged; "tell me what's wrong."
"It's my daughter, Angela. She's gone. He took her. I'm afraid he's going to kill her."
"Someone stole your child?" Alarmed, Clarie sat back in her chair. "Go on," she whispered.
"He said he was going to marry her. He said if he married her, we would not starve. He said ... he promised.... But he's cruel. He beats her. Now he's taken her away somewhere. I'm sure of it." Francesca's voice grew stronger as she spoke of the man who had hurt her daughter.
"Who is he?" Clarie asked. Her heart began to pound as she tried to understand. Murder. Kidnapping. It could not be.
"He lives in the next building. He works for one of those big new department stores. He hired my daughters, Angela and Maura, to finish shirtwaists. My girls stay in our room and work all day, every day, every single day, sewing on buttons, tying up seams, and still we did not have enough." Francesca sniffed and wiped her face with a handkerchief she retrieved from her pocket. "He promised that when he married Angela, he would rent sewing machines for us, so we could make more money. Maybe he kept some of the money he should have given to us and used it to bring us presents, so that we would believe him."
Clarie sensed an undertone of anger and resentment in the Italian woman's words. Against whom or what? Clarie wondered. The man, her life, or teachers, like Clarie, who came to work every day in the starched, white shirtwaist blouses her daughters labored over? Clarie fingered one of the tiny buttons on her cuff and tried to imagine spending all day sewing them on.
"I let her do it. Let her be with him. She begged me. She wanted to make it easier for me," Francesca murmured.
"How do you know he beats her?" Clarie asked, hoping that some part of this story was not true.
"Everyone in the building can hear him," Francesca said as she stared at the floor and began to breathe heavily. "They hear her cries in the courtyard almost every night."
Clarie gazed at Francesca, picturing what her life must be like. The teachers at the lycée were occasionally assigned to take students to crowded, sewerless tenements, to teach them how to make charity visits. Clarie shook her head. What folly, as if an hour's "visit" on a bright sunny afternoon would teach privileged young women what poverty was really like. Fortunately, she and her students had never heard shouts or blows during their forays. Yet anyone who even occasionally read a Paris daily had an inkling of what went on in rooms occupied by entire families and common-law liaisons. The thin walls and curtainless windows opening onto dank, dark common courtyards must hold few secrets.
Most of all, Clarie knew what it was to see a child suffer, and then to lose a child. She had lost her firstborn a week after his birth. This was a pain, an ache in her heart, that would never go away. She leaned toward Francesca and waited until the charwoman met her eyes.
"You must go to the police. This man should not be hurting your daughter."
The older woman pulled away. "Oh no, professoressa, no. We cannot go to the police, they don't like Italians. They think we are all bad people. No."
"Then your husband. The girl's father. He must go to the man and—" Clarie stopped. When Francesca turned away from her, she realized there was no husband.
Excerpted from The Missing Italian Girl by Barbara Corrado Pope. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Corrado Pope. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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