Wednesday, 31 October
Dia de los Muertos
It is a relatively little-known fact that, over the course of a single year, about twenty million letters are delivered to the dead. People forget to stop the mail—those grieving widows and prospective heirs—and so magazine subscriptions remain uncanceled; distant friends unnotified; library fines unpaid. That's twenty million circulars, bank statements, credit cards, love letters, junk mail, greetings, gossip and bills dropping daily onto doormats or parquet floors, thrust casually through railings, wedged into letter boxes, accumulating in stairwells, left unwanted on porches and steps, never to reach their addressee. The dead don't care. More importantly, neither do the living. The living just follow their petty concerns, quite unaware that very close by, a miracle is taking place. The dead are coming back to life.
It doesn't take much to raise the dead. A couple of bills; a name; a postcode; nothing that can't be found in any old domestic garbage bag, torn apart (perhaps by foxes) and left on the doorstep like a gift. You can learn a lot from abandoned mail: names, bank details, passwords, e-mail addresses, security codes. With the right combination of personal details you can open up a bank account; hire a car; even apply for a new passport. The dead don't need such things anymore. A gift, as I said, just waiting for collection.
Sometimes Fate even delivers in person, and it always pays to be alert. Carpe diem, and devil the hindmost. Which is why I always read the obituaries, sometimes managing to acquire the identity even before the funeral has taken place. And which is why, when I saw the sign, and beneath it the postbox with its packet of letters, I accepted the gift with a gracious smile.
Of course, it wasn't my postbox. The postal service here is better than most, and letters are rarely misdelivered. It's one more reason I prefer Paris; that and the food, the wine, the theaters, the shops, and the virtually unlimited opportunities. But Paris costs—the overheads are extraordinary—and besides, I'd been itching for some time to reinvent myself again. I'd been playing it safe for nearly two months, teaching in a lycee in the eleventh arrondissement, but in the wake of the recent troubles there I'd decided at last to make a clean break (taking with me twenty-five thousand euros' worth of departmental funds, to be delivered into an account opened in the name of an ex-colleague and to be removed discreetly, over a couple of weeks), and had a look at apartments to rent.
First, I tried the Left Bank. The properties there were out of my league; but the girl from the agency didn't know that. So, with an English accent and going by the name of Emma Windsor, with my Mulberry handbag tucked negligently into the crook of my arm and the delicious whisper of Prada around my silk-stockinged calves, I was able to spend a pleasant morning window-shopping.
I'd asked to view only empty properties. There were several along the Left Bank: deep-roomed apartments overlooking the river; mansion flats with roof gardens; penthouses with parquet floors.
With some regret, I rejected them all, though I couldn't resist picking up a couple of useful items on the way. A magazine, still in its wrapper, containing the customer number of its intended recipient; several circulars; and at one place, gold: a banker's card in the name of Amelie Deauxville, which needs nothing but a phone call for me to activate.
I left the girl my mobile number. The phone account belongs to Noelle Marcelin, whose identity I acquired some months ago. Her payments are quite up-to-date—the poor woman died last year, aged ninety-four—but it means that anyone tracing my calls will have some difficulty finding me. My Internet account, too, is in her name and remains fully paid up. Noelle is too precious for me to lose. But she will never be my main identity. For a start, I don't want to be ninety-four. And I'm tired of getting all those advertisements for stairlifts.
My last public persona was Francoise Lavery, a teacher of English at the Lycee Rousseau in the eleventh. Age thirty-two; born in Nantes; married and widowed in the same year to Raoul Lavery, killed in a car crash on the eve of their anniversary—a rather romantic touch, I thought, that explained her faint air of melancholy. A strict vegetarian, rather shy, diligent, but not talented enough to be a threat. All in all, a nice girl—which just goes to show you should never judge by appearances.
Today, however, I'm someone else. Twenty-five thousand euros is no small sum, and there's always the chance that someone will begin to suspect the truth. Most people don't—most people wouldn't notice a crime if it was going on right in front of them—but I haven't got this far by taking risks, and I've found that it's safer to stay on the move.
So I travel light—a battered leather case and a Sony laptop containing the makings of over a hundred possible identities—and I can be packed, cleaned out, all traces gone in rather less than an afternoon.
That's how Francoise disappeared. I burned her papers, correspondence, bank details, notes. I closed all accounts in her name. Books, clothes, furniture, and the rest I gave to the Croix Rouge. It never pays to gather moss.
After that I needed to find myself anew. I booked into a cheap hotel, paid on Amelie's credit card, changed out of Emma's clothes, and went shopping.
Francoise was a dowdy type, sensible heels and neat chignons. My new persona, however, has a different style. Zozie de l'Alba is her name—she is vaguely foreign, though you might be hard-pressed to tell her country of origin. She's as flamboyant as Francoise was not—wears costume jewelry in her hair; loves bright colors and frivolous shapes; favors bazaars and vintage shops, and would never be seen dead in sensible shoes.
The change was neatly executed. I entered a shop as Francoise Lavery, in a gray twinset and a string of fake pearls. Ten minutes later, I left as someone else.
The problem remains: where to go? The Left Bank, though tempting, is out of the question, though I believe Amelie Deauxville may be good for a few thousand more before I have to ditch her. I have other sources too, of course, not including my most recent—Madame Beauchamp, the secretary in charge of departmental finances at my erstwhile place of work.
It's so easy to open a credit account. A couple of spent utility bills; even an old driving license can be enough. And with the rise of online purchasing, the possibilities are expanding daily. But my needs extend to far, far more than a source of income. Boredom appalls me. I need more. Scope for my abilities, adventure, a challenge, a change.
Excerpted from The Girl With No Shadow by Joanne Harris. Copyright © 2008 by Joanne Harris. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.