Claudia, an English student down on her luck, meets Paul in a bar in Paris, agrees to accompany him to Burma, and finds herself travelling back in time to a magical country where oxcarts outnumber automobiles, enchantment rubs shoulders with poverty, and the government has resorted to wholesale drug trafficking to keep the economy afloat. But Paul has enemies who want to see him dead. Magic turns into nightmare, the journey becomes a flight - and then Claudia finds out what Paul really wants her do to.
Caroline was dead. She had been dead for two years, two months, and 27 days.
In any case, she would never have set foot in a place like this. Far less sat at the bar alone, a target for the eyes and minds of every casual male drinker in the place.
Still it was odd how the girl at the bar was sitting in exactly the same way Caroline used to sit, with her hair falling round her face and her shoulders hunched protectively round her glass.
The girl looked up from her drink and he went rigid in his seat. It was Caroline.
He could feel the blood draining from his face. It couldn't be Caroline. Caroline was dead. Or was she? After all, he had missed the funeral, he had never seen her dead--
He took another swallow of whisky and got a grip on himself. Of course it wasn't Caroline. But the resemblance was extraordinary. He went on staring. The same olive skin, the same faintly Oriental features, the same air of fragility. The girl had seen his reaction. She was looking directly at him. Their eyes met. She picked up her drink and slid off the stool. Too late he realized what a girl like that was doing in a bar like this.
She had misinterpreted his look and now she was coming to negotiate her terms.
She walked confidently across the room, followed by the eyes of all the lone male drinkers round the bar with their demis de bi?re. She was dressed entirely in black, unfamiliar layered garments, short sleeves over long sleeves, an odd kind of draped skirt over some kind of trousers, and heavy black laced-up boots. Clothes that contrived both to reveal and conceal her body at the same time. The English students sitting a couple of tables away with their backpacks and county accents looked up curiously as she went past. The man in the rumpled business suit across the aisle stopped gazing ardently at his much younger girlfriend and gave her an assessing glance.
She reached his table and looked down with a sudden air of diffidence. "Je peux m'asseoir?"
He had the impression that if he said no, she would simply retreat back to her stool. "Si vous voulez." He gestured vaguely at the seat opposite.
She put her glass down on the table and slid on to the banquette. Close up the resemblance was both more and less striking. Caroline had favoured white and pastels: he could not remember ever seeing her in black, let alone the exotic garments that this girl wore, but the skin, the hair, the features were all uncannily alike.
"Alors," said the girl, in a tone that fell only a few degrees short of overt aggressivity, "je vous plais?"
He wasn't sure how to answer that. Instead he said, "Vous ?tes fran?aise?"
"Really?" That was the last thing he had been expecting. She certainly didn't sound anglaise.
"Yes, really. You too?" Her voice was nothing like Caroline's. Caroline's voice had been light and high-pitched, this girl's was low and grave.
"I'm sorry to stare, but you look exactly like someone I ... I know."
She nodded, apparently taking this in her stride. "What's your name?"
He hesitated. "Paul."
"I'm delighted to meet you, Paul. My name's Claudia."
No Scottish burr in her voice either. She spoke standard, middle-class English.
She could have been from anywhere.
"What are you doing in Paris, Paul?" she went on. "Do you live here, or are you over on business?"
"I'm just passing through."
"Ah. Are you on your way back to England or have you just come from there?"
"I just left," he said tersely. "What about you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm on my way back. As soon as I get enough cash together, that is. Why that bloody country has to be an island, I don't know. If one could just hitchhike there like everywhere else, life would be so much simpler."
"You've run out of money?"
"You got it." She smiled ferociously. "I don't actually plan to make a career out of what I'm doing now."
"Don't you have parents or family in England who could send you the money for the fare?"
Her lips compressed into a thin line. "No."
"Then why not try the Consulate?"
"Oh I did," she said airily. "It didn't work out."
Paul blinked. What was that supposed to mean? Repatriating stranded citizens was one of the routine functions of British Consulates in foreign cities. But she was looking at him in a way that placed further questioning firmly off-limits. "I ... see. But isn't there some other way you could earn the money to get home?"
"Nope. There's nothing out there -- nothing that pays serious money, that is.
It's the recession. I did some waitressing last month and after that I got a few hours cleaning people's houses, which was okay for pocket money, but then the guy I was living with threw me out, I can't afford a hotel, the escort agencies won't have me... It doesn't leave one much choice."
The students had paid their bill and were heading off towards the Gare du Nord and the last train home. The portly middle-aged waiter, who had served Paul for the past three nights and was beginning to greet him as a regular, hovered at the edge of Paul's vision, his tray balanced on three fingers of his left hand and his right thumb hooked into the pocket of his striped waistcoat.
Paul looked at Claudia. The glass of red wine she had brought with her --
probably the cheapest drink one could get in a French bar -- was empty. "Would you like another glass of wine?"
"Oh. Yes. No. No more wine, thank you. But I think I--" She broke off and appeared to sift mentally through a series of alternatives. "I'd like a grand creme please."
Paul signalled to the waiter. "Anything to eat?"
"Oh. Yes. Thank you, that would be very nice," she said with unexpected demureness. "It's late though, I don't know if they're still serving."
"Vous pouvez faire un sandwich pour Madame?" suggested Paul, and the waiter gave Claudia an appraising look and said that no doubt they could, would that be ham, cheese, or rillettes? Ham and cheese, she said. When he came back with the sandwich she fell on it as if she hadn't eaten for a week.
"Sorry," she said, when she had finished. "That can't have been a very edifying spectacle. I guess I was hungrier than I thought."
"Would you like another?"
"No. No thanks. That was just fine."
The waiter brought her coffee and she smiled up at him. Her smile was just like Caroline's too. Paul closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, she was watching him gravely. The smile had disappeared.
"Who do I remind you of?"
"My sister. My half-sister actually. Forgive my asking, but are you part-Chinese too?"
"One-quarter. My mother's half-English, half-Chinese. She was born in Hong Kong." "And your father?"
"Italian, God rot him."
Caroline had been half-Chinese, half-English. Her mother had been from Hong Kong too, but their father, as far as Paul knew, was pure English. He wondered what odd coincidence of genes had engineered this extraordinary likeness. The couple on the other side of the aisle got up to leave. The man, helping his companion with her coat, gave Paul a leer of connivance over her green wool shoulder.
Avoiding his eyes, Paul felt for his wallet and looked to see how much it contained.
"How much do you need to get across the Channel?"
Claudia opened her eyes wide in surprise. "You mean you'd give me the money for my fare? Because I look like your sister?"
"How much is it?" he repeated.
"No." She shook her head firmly. "It's kind of you, but no. One, I don't take favours. Not from anyone. Two, I don't intend to go back on the bloody ferry, you know. It's too damn cold at this time of year. I'm going to wait till I can afford a plane ticket."
Paul raised his eyebrows. "First class or business class?"
"I'll settle for economy."