THE FIRST TIME I SEE HER, I PEG HER AS A JUMP risk.
Vince and I are walking the quays, and there she is: long, dark hair whipping around her face as she stands on the edge of the cobblestone walkway looking down at the water, a mere five feet above the waves. The Seine is swollen from winter rains, so though the jump would be harmless from that height, the barely choppy surface could hide dangerous currents.
We head toward her, my hand already extended to touch her arm. To pass my calm to her, one of our only real “superpowers” as a revenant (or, as Ambrose likes to call us, “undead guardian angels with a bad case of OCD”). But before we reach her she turns and walks away, heading for one of the quay’s stone benches, where she curls her legs up to her chest and ropes her knees in with her arms. She remains that way, hugging herself, rocking back and forth, and staring blindly across the river with tears coursing down her cheeks, as we pass unnoticed.
“What do you think?” I ask Vincent, who pulls his scarf up over his nose and mouth, shielding himself from the frigid January wind.
“I don’t think she’s going to jump,” he says. “But let’s circle around under the bridge to make sure.”
We stride side by side until we get to the Carrousel Bridge. Even the indigents who regularly sleep under its arches have cleared out. It is one of the coldest days on record . . . at least since I moved to Paris a century ago.
We good revenants, called bardia, are fated to watch over humans, saving them from premature death by suicide, murder, or accident. Our job is definitely easier in weather like this, with everyone staying indoors. But even members of the reanimated undead can feel the cold.
Most of our work for the last few days has been rounding up the few remaining street people and getting them to care centers before they suffer frostbite or even death from exposure. Judging by her clothes and hygiene, this girl is definitely not homeless. Instead she’s pretty enough to add to my girls-to-ask-out list. However, hitting on someone who is crying isn’t quite my style.
So if she’s not homeless, why is she here, taking a solitary stroll next to the river in the freezing cold?
We confirm that there are no stragglers under the bridge, and then turn to head back to the bench. When we reach it, it is empty. A few yards away, I see the girl climbing the stairs to street level. Since there’s no one else around, we follow her at a safe distance, ready to run if she heads for the bridge. “Ambrose, use your foresight—do you see her jumping?” I ask.
Naw. The word skips my ears and goes straight to my mind in Ambrose’s deep baritone. But she is about to sprint up the rue du Bac.
“We should follow her,” I say to Vincent. “She’s acting bizarrely enough to merit a few more minutes of surveillance.”
“Agreed. She could still throw herself in front of a car,” he says, concerned. “Something’s obviously wrong with her.”
“I’m banking on it being the result of a bad breakup,” I reply. “That’s what happens when people get too serious. Feelings get hurt. Hearts get broken. Some people never learn. Don’t get serious. It’s my number one rule.” I rub my hands together and blow on them, trying to force hot breath through my wool gloves. “My fingers are icicles. And the streets are empty. Let’s head back to La Maison.”
Wimp, taunts Ambrose.
“Hey, if you weren’t currently disembodied, you’d be agreeing with me, ghost boy,” I say, and hear him chuckle. Vincent isn’t paying attention and picks up his pace. I glance ahead of us and see that the girl has started to run.
We follow her, leaving a good half block between us: There is no traffic for her to throw herself in front of, and we don’t want to call unnecessary attention to ourselves. She jogs up the rue du Bac, crosses the boulevard Saint-Germain, and finally turns left at a square where old, stately apartment buildings are grouped around a small park.
She walks up to one, and while opening the door, turns and casts a quick look behind her. Vincent and I duck our heads down and walk straight up the rue du Bac without her seeing our faces.
But I saw hers. And her expression is one I recognize—I’ve seen it many times during my existence. Especially in the line of “work” I’m in. The girl is suffering from terrible grief.
Vincent and I lock eyes, and I tip my head left. Toward home. He understands and we walk to the end of the block, turning eastward toward La Maison. It’s not like we can read each other’s minds. But when you’re best friends with someone for over half a century, you start to recognize their every gesture. We’re like an old couple. Words are almost unnecessary.
We walk for a while in silence, keeping an eye out for anything amiss. Ambrose doesn’t spot any activity at all in the neighborhood and is singing a Louis Armstrong song directly into my brain, probably to piss me off. “Who is the lucky lady tonight?” Vincent asks as he taps the code into our security panel. The gate swings slowly open.
“Quintana,” I respond.
“New York, upstate somewhere. Over here doing an art degree.”
“Blond?” he asks.
“Negative,” I respond. “Dark hair with blue tips. Alternative chic.”
“Sounds like your type,” he jokes. We both know I don’t have a type. “Female” is my type.
Like I said. We’re an old couple—we need few words. But we couldn’t be more different. Vincent stopped dating decades ago, not that he had been much into it before. “What’s the point?” he had said. This was around 1980, and that year’s bouquet of Parisiennes was breathtaking.
“What’s the point?” I exclaimed. “They’re beautiful. And soft. And they smell good. What do you mean, ‘what’s the point’?”
“We can only go so far, and then we have to disappear from their lives. It’s not worth it if we can’t even get close,” he sighed.
“Excuse me, but I make a regular habit of ‘getting close’!”
“I don’t mean like that,” he responded. “I’m talking emotional intimacy. And why risk exposure of our entire kindred for a girl you’re only going to spend a few nights with?” His expression was flat. Uncaring. But I knew there was an ocean of pain bottled inside him.
“Man, no one will ever compare to Hélène. It’s been seventy years since you saw her murdered by those Nazis and you’re still hanging on. You’ve just got to accept that your first love is your greatest, and everything else is going to be second-best. But second-best is better than nothing at all.”
My arguments fall on deaf ears with Vincent. If he won’t amuse himself with humans, the only other choice is to go revenant. And we know pretty much all of the female members of our kindred in France. They’re like sisters to us. Revenants do occasionally fall for one another. It happens. But it just hasn’t happened to Vincent or me. And until the next global convocation, we probably won’t meet any new bardia beauties.
Which is A-OK with me. Why settle for one girl if you can have a lot? It’s a good motto, I find. Works for drinks, friends, and women. Not so much for enemies. But our situation in France is stable. Similar number of numa and bardia. The balance of good and evil has reached an equilibrium in the past few years.
Which means I’ve got time to play.
“SAD GIRL AT TWO O’CLOCK.”
I look in the direction Ambrose nods, and see the girl sitting on the bench, hugging her knees and watching the water.
“How many times does that make this week?” I ask.
“Well, we saw her last Wednesday when you and Vin were acting like babies about the cold spell. Two nights later she was back. Nothing for a day, then three days in a row. This is the sixth time we’ve seen her in two weeks,” Ambrose calculates.
“And we’ve never seen her in the ’hood before. At her age, she’s either visiting relatives, or has moved here. She’s definitely not a tourist . . . not with that catastrophic look on her face and the fact that she visits the same boring place every day instead of going to the Eiffel Tower,” I say.
We fall silent as we reach her bench and pass without her noticing. The girl never sees us. She never sees anything. She’s like a ghost flitting through the earth without leaving a trace.
“No one’s here,” Ambrose says as we duck under the bridge. It’s less frigid than last week, but even so, the number of poor souls daring to sleep in the rough has dwindled. Ambrose cracks his knuckles and windmills his arms around before falling into his boxing routine . . . bouncing up and down from side to side and throwing punches at an invisible foe.
I start to speak, and then stop myself.
“What?” Ambrose asks, executing a powerful inside hook.
I sigh. “It’s about Sad Girl. Doesn’t it seem like Vincent . . .”
“Yep, Vin’s stalking her,” Ambrose finishes for me.
I didn’t mean to be that direct. I just wondered if Ambrose noticed the change in Vincent too. But I know he’s right. Our surveillance walks seem to lead past rue du Bac more and more often, and each time we spot Sad Girl, Vincent insists on waiting until we “see her safely home.”
“We’re not Boy Scouts,” I reminded him the third time. “We’re not here on earth to help little old ladies across the street. No one’s threatening to harm her, and she’s not going to commit suicide.”
“I know,” he replied. “But something’s different about her. Something’s wrong.”
“Well, it’s not anything you’ll be able to fix.”
Vincent nodded, accepting what I said, but not liking it. He stared up at the side of the building until a light went on in a third-floor window, and then visibly relaxed, knowing she was safely back in her room.
“Who else lives in the building?” I asked, testing him.
Without thinking twice, Vincent said, “First floor: family with two small children and a dog. Second floor: geriatric couple, three teacup terriers. Third floor: our mystery girl, another teenage girl a bit older than her, and two elderly people. Fourth floor: family with baby and basset hound. Fifth floor’s empty. And the top floor has lights on during the daytime. Someone in the building probably works up there.”
“You’ve been watching people come and go,” I said.
He nodded, looking guilty.
“That’s not our job.”
He ran his hand through his hair, stopping halfway through to yank on it in frustration. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said.
“I won’t. But, man, you gotta stop. You haven’t even saved the girl and you’re getting obsessed. Flashing amber light, dude.”
He shrugged, looking miserable. “She’s a mystery.”
“. . . that can be left unsolved,” I added.
But the problem is solved for us, because a week later, she’s gone. Disappears just like that, overnight. And part of Vincent goes with her. For the two days a month that he’s volant, he keeps disappearing. I have an idea of where he is. Haunting the empty third floor of a certain apartment building. But he never says anything and I don’t ask. He just keeps getting more and more distant, closing in on himself.
March and April are busy months. We intervene with several suicide attempts (and unfortunately fail to rescue one), stop a few hit-and-runs before they happen, and rescue several victims of our enemies. (Not all revenants are good like we bardia—our evil twins are called “numa.”) Through all of this Vincent has this kind of vacant air about him, and you know he is thinking about Sad Girl.
So I know something has happened when, in early June, Vincent returns from walking with Charlotte with his face lit up like the Eiffel Tower. “What’s up?” I whisper to Charlotte as Vincent flits around the kitchen like his Chuck Taylors sprouted wings.
“A girl. Human,” she says.
“Long, dark hair, pale skin, blue-green eyes?” I ask.
“That’s the one,” Charlotte confirms, stealing a glance at Vincent, who happily spoons a mountain of sugar into his coffee.
The next day I’m patrolling with Vincent when we spot her, and end up following her from her building to a cinema on the rue Champollion that’s screening Les 400 Coups. She’s changed since the last time I saw her. Her skin is lightly tanned and she no longer looks skeletal. She has been eating, obviously, and it looks good on her. She’s still sad, but definitely looks stronger.
“Okay, man, she’s safely in the theater. Can we go now?”
“Have you ever seen Les 400 Coups?” Vincent asks, his face total innocence.
“About fifty times. If you recall, we went to the premiere together in 1959. And no, we are not going to stalk her into the cinema just to watch the back of her head for an hour and a half.”
An hour and a half later, we step out of the cinema, blinking in the sunlight as the girl walks ahead of us, making her way back home.
“You know what?” I say, not even attempting to mask my sarcasm. “That movie hasn’t changed a bit in the last twenty years.”
Vincent thrusts his hands in his pockets and does his hunched-over walk as we follow Sad Girl down the boulevard Saint-Michel. I grab his arm and yank him to a stop. “Vince. Dude. No more. This is getting unhealthy. I’m not going to say anything to the others about it, but man . . . you need to get a hold of yourself. Or I’ll talk to Jean-Baptiste.”
He fixes me with this soulful look like he’s dying inside. “Jules. I can’t help it.”