This was going to require careful handling.
I'd known a few police officers in my day. They didn't all have that gleam of righteous fervor in their eye, but this one did. He planted himself in the middle of the growing crowd of onlookers, chest puffed out, flying high on his own fumes of self-satisfaction and testosterone. On behalf of his city and his nation, he informed me in a ringing baritone, on behalf of all the people of France, he was utterly desolated for the insult done to me and my handbag, and overjoyed to be the instrument through which justice flowed.
The kid had given up fighting, and hung in his grip like a shabby sack of laundry. She looked scared to death, and for good reason. I'd done Bernie's required reading, hadn't I? The French-Arab street kids squared off with the Paris gendarmerie nearly every day, whether over petty crimes like this one or more trumped-up stuff like vagrancy and trespassing, and it never ended well for them. That's how the 2002 riots had started - with a couple of teenagers out after curfew, running from the police. They'd dodged the wrong way, into a power station, the police had fired rubber bullets up into the rigging to which they were clinging, and one of the kids had lost his grip and ended up dead.
Well, no need to add this incident to the annals. I cleared my throat and sidled up to the gendarme.
I was so grateful, I murmured, truly I was. But there must have been a mistake - the person who had snatched my bag was taller, and bearded, and had been wearing a red jacket. Surely this could not possibly be the perpetrator.
Ah, but madame, he assured me, that was how these things functioned; he had seen it before; he knew how these criminals thought. The bag must have been passed from the first thief to the second. This one - he shook the girl slightly, to illustrate his point - should not be considered innocent, even if she was not the original snatcher of the bag.
Surely, I persisted, gritting my teeth, he was a paragon among policemen. But it was impossible. This girl was known to me; she had helped me repair the tire of my rental bicycle just that afternoon.
A clever ruse, madame. She was preying upon your kind and trusting nature.
I clutched my ruined bag tighter, shaking my head. No, I could not believe that of her. No, I would not press charges; I would not think of it. In fact, I insisted upon giving her a reward; it was clear to me that she had recovered the bag and was bringing it back to me, and such heroism should be applauded, not punished.
The policeman looked around. Apparently I was more persuasive than I knew; half the crowd had lost interest and wandered away, and the rest of them were nodding along. Whether they believed me or not, it was pretty clear that they remembered all those car fires from 2002. He gave up and released his grip on the girl's arm.
"Alors," I said, pushing a ten-euro note into her skinny hand. "And here is my card, in case you need anything. I am in your debt."
Her gaze flicked up to mine, wary and assessing. She nodded once, then shoved the money into the pocket of her ancient blue jeans and edged out of the circle of onlookers, wheeling and breaking into a sprint the moment she was out of arm's reach. The gendarme muttered something incomprehensible under his breath about tourists who couldn't be helped and stalked away. I lodged my bag more firmly under my arm - without its strap, it was off-balance and uncomfortably heavy - and headed back toward the hotel.
It was past ten, but that was perfect. Four-fifteen in Atlanta - just enough time for a brief chat with Lila. I sank into the armchair in the corner of my room and called up her number from my contacts list.
"The Oaks in Autumn," a smooth-voiced receptionist said. "How may I direct your call?"
"Room 414," I said, and fought the tiniest tinge of homesickness when the hold music started playing. It shouldn't be possible to get misty-eyed over Muzak, I told myself sternly. Still, it was a relief when Lila came on the line, cutting off the marimba soloist halfway through his virtuoso take on "Brown-Eyed Girl."
Her greeting sounded good today - chipper, bright, alert. "Hi, Lila. It's Adrienne."
A befuddled, suspicious pause. "Adrienne who?"
Slowly, carefully, I let out the breath I'd been holding. Not such a good day after all, then.
"Hello?" Lila was saying into the phone. "Hello? Who's this? Who's calling?"
"It's me, Nana," I said, using the old pet name that she never used to like, back when she was a vibrant little silver sparrow who could have kicked all four Golden Girls' asses at once with one hand tied behind her back and the other wrapped around the stem of a mint julep. Now that she'd begun to … wander, calling her that seemed to reassure her, remind her of her role in our relationship.
Alzheimer's was a bitch, all right. And it skipped a generation, so the fact that both Ray and Lila had lost the sanity lottery didn't bode well for me down the road. Not that I could imagine myself living long enough to worry about that. "I'm Adrienne," I said, keeping my voice patient and low. "Jim and Becca's girl."
"Becca," Lila said, recognition seeping back into her voice. "She was just here."
She'd said something like this for the first time six months ago and kicked my heart into overdrive. By now, I'd learned to be more cautious. "Was she, Nana?"
"On the television," Lila said. "She changed her hair and her face, but I could tell it was her." A reflective pause. "She's coming back to me, you know. She promised she would."
"I'm sure she wants to, Nana," I said, casting about for a change of subject. "Hey, would you like to hear a song?"
"I like music," Lila said. "My granddaughter is a singer, you know."
I bit my lip hard against the note of pride in her soft, vague voice, the last remnant of lucidity battling for control. "Is she?"
"She was such a smart little girl. I don't know where she is now."
"I'm here, Nana," I said, and - incapable of further conversation - launched into the first verse of the Brahms Wiegenlied:
Guten Abend, gute Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht,
mit Näglein besteckt, schlupf' unter die Deck!
Morgen früh, wenns Gott will, wirst du wieder geweckt.
Morgen früh, wenns Gott will, wirst du wieder geweckt.
Good evening, good night, covered with roses, adorned with carnations, slip under the sheets. Tomorrow morning, if God wills it, you will wake.
Sort of depressing, if I thought about it long enough, but back when I was little she'd sung it to me, and now the sweet old familiar music-box tune was stirring something in her fractured memory; as I launched into the second verse, she began to hum along with me.
We were both silent after I finished. Then she laughed, a clear rich young sound that made tears well up in my unwilling eyes.
"Good night, honey," she said, lost in her memories but sounding completely lucid; for a moment, I was ten years old again, and she was bending over to tuck me into her verbena-scented sheets. "Sleep tight. We'll start over again tomorrow."
"Night, Lila," I said, and pressed 'End'.
It was hours before I could sleep.