"I can help you with your luggage," said Gil Leduc as he boarded the bullet train at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, France.
He was relieved to be back in his native country after a four-year absence. Homesick didn't begin to describe what he felt while he was away. No place on earth could compare to France.
The seventeen year-old followed an elderly lady in a long, light blue coat struggling to place a heavy suitcase on the high rack.
"That would be nice, young man," she replied in a high pitched, frail voice. "Be careful though. Don't want you getting hurt."
He lifted and placed the suitcase on the rack with ease. "Wasn't too heavy."
"Good to have a nice, strong man around."
He gave her a small smile of appreciation and followed her toward his assigned seat. The lady sat in front of him with her Bichon Frise. The dog reminded him of a living ball of cotton.
"Where are you going, young man?" she asked.
"Royan." He couldn't wait to spent some time on the beach with his cousin Catherine. Although he had not seen her in four years, email and social media allowed them to keep in touch and maintain their bond.
"You are visiting from somewhere else then?"
"Yes. I live in the U.S., in Niagara Falls."
She nodded. "You flew over then? To Paris, and now you're taking the train the rest of the way?"
"I'm traveling to Royan as well." The lady in the blue coat smiled. "My name is Valerie Cartier. Perhaps we can have a drink together there."
Gil gave her a polite smile. "We'll see." Although Gil usually didn't mind talking to elderly people, he didn't want to agree to spend time with someone he didn't know.
Madame Cartier drew a picture from her handbag. "Perhaps you could meet my granddaughter. She's beautiful, isn't she?"
Gil studied the photo of a teenaged girl with long, brown hair and soft brown eyes, and an olive complexion.
"Is something wrong, young man?" the woman said after a moment. "You don't think she's beautiful?"
"Not at all. She certainly is. Still, I'll decline, thanks all the same."
Madame Cartier pouted. "I'm concerned because she's never had an actual boyfriend. I'm sure she would be delighted-"
"Please. I'm not interested. I have a girlfriend." Gil settled in his seat. He opened the newspaper he'd picked up at the station and a show of flapping it open, hoping Madame Cartier would cease pestering him. An ad for "The Lion King" movie, sure to be one of summer 2019's international blockbuster, filled an entire page.
The train left the station on time. Gil leaned back and yawned. During the flight from Toronto, he had slept only three hours. He hoped to sleep some on the way to Niort, where he would change trains. Too tired to focus on the newspaper, he was about to set it aside when the leader for a small item caught his eye: Missing American Student. A foreign student in Royan had disappeared. Her fellow travelers reported that they hadn't seen her as expected. Gil was aware some Americans from his area were studying in Royan and he wondered if this missing Ashley Slick was part of that group. The mystery irked him, as mysteries did. With an uncle and his grandfather in law enforcement, curiosity seemed to be his legacy. Gil had an idea that he was acquainted with the missing girl but before he could pursue it his weariness overtook him.
He was jarred awake when someone grabbed his arm. A conductor towered over him.
"Bonjour. Billet, s'il vous plait."
Ticket, of course. Gil pulled the ticket out of his notebook and handed it to the conductor, who punched it.
Gil stared out the window. The sunshine excited him despite his weariness. He couldn't wait to hit the beach.
At one o'clock the train stopped at Niort. Gil offered to help Madame Cartier with her luggage again, grateful that she left him alone for the the rest of the trip.
"Thank you, young man. You're so kind. I'll keep an eye on yours. No backpack for you? All the young people use backpacks, it seems."
"No," Gil replied. "Just these." He toted a blue duffle bag and a wheeled suitcase.
Gil studied the old woman's face. She had blue eyes and a small nose. Even more than her granddaughter in the photo, she struck Gil as familiar. "Have you ever lived in Tours?"
Madame Cartier's smile turned to a deep frown. "Why would you ask me that?"
"You remind me of someone I used to know. What about your granddaughter?"
"No, she was born in Royan. She never liked to travel. Not even to Paris." She clutched his arm. "You're certain you won't come to meet her?"
"I'm certain." Gil found her persistence off-putting. Trying not to appear rude, he shook off her grip.
"Suit yourself then," she said and swiveled away from him. When she quickly departed he wasn't too upset.
About half an hour later, the train left for Royan. Peace, at last, he muttered to himself, relaxing undisturbed into his seat.
At 2:45 p.m., Gil arrived in Royan. He grabbed his luggage and approached the taxi stand where a cab driver, around thirty years old, stood by a brown Renault Laguna. The driver smiled at him.
"To the Hotel Bord du Mer," said Gil. His cousin had made a reservation for him at the beachfront hotel.
Gil handed the driver his luggage. "Do you prefer I sit in the back?"
"As you wish, guy."
Gil sat in front with the driver. As he looked around the city, he thought he could have been in Greece. Many of the city's buildings were white stucco, and their roofs were orange. Tourists easily became lost in these slender streets.
The fee for the taxi ride came to 7.50 euros. Gil handed the driver a ten euro note. "Good day, sir. Keep the change."
The driver's face broke into a wide grin. "Thank you. You are very nice."
Gil stepped from the cab and breathed deeply of the sea air. After hours of breathing recycled air on a plane and trains, the fresh air was a blessing.
Reinvigorated, he checked into the hotel. Crisp and clean, its aqua and white color scheme echoed the Bay of Biscay's beach, blue water, and cloudless sky. The front desk and light fixture's reflective surface of the front desk glimmered like a shell's pearly interior.
The front desk clerk handed Gil a note left for him by his cousin, Catherine, telling him to meet her at Conche de Foncillon, one of the city's beaches.
He took his luggage to his room. The room's coastal decor brought a smile to his face. The bathroom offered fluffy white towels, teal-and coral shell-shaped guest soaps, and shampoo the color of seawater.
He stowed a few of his belongings and walked to the beach. The gentle ocean breeze blew through his hair. He passed a crowded swimming pool. Its infinity edge made it appear to blend with the bay. Gil made a mental note to swim there sometime during his stay.
People of various shapes and sized filled the beach. Families played near the water. Kites dotted the sky, and the air smelled out of the ocean, pastries, and delicious meats.
Gil descended the wooden steps leading to the beach. The sand was white, unlike the pebbly beaches he had visited as a child. On spotting his cousin lying face down near a snack shack, he quickened his pace. "Catherine!"
A stunning blonde in a white bikini, it was no surprise she had a starring role in a French police TV series. Her bright blue eyes sparkled at Gil's approach and she stood to wrap him in a tight embrace. He kissed her on both cheeks. "So good to see you again."
"Same here." Catherine returned the kisses. "How was your trip?"
Gil dropped his beach towel on the sand then removed his shorts and dark blue t-shirt. "Had a strange experience on the train."
"Oh?" Catherine dropped back to her towel and laid her head on her arms. "What happened?"
He told her about his encounter with Madame Cartier. "I found myself wondering if I knew her from my childhood."
Catherine rubbed her forehead. "Valerie Cartier you said? It's possible. You never forget a face." She straightened and grabbed her beach bag beside here towel. Fishing out her suntan lotion, she smoothed some on her arm.
The orange gel looked and smelled almost edible to Gil. "Do you know her?"
Catherine shrugged. "I can't say I do. It's a fairly common name."
"I asked her if she ever lived in Tours. She didn't seem to want to talk about it," said Gil. "After pestering me about meeting her granddaughter, as soon as I asked about her past she couldn't get away from me fast enough."
Catherine chuckled. "Well, she's long gone. Put it out of your mind."
Their conversation was interrupted by a shout that made them both turn their heads.
A man called out and hastened toward a young woman on the beach.
Gil grained to keep the man in sight. He barely glimpsed the man but thought he might have seen him before.
"Something the matter?" Catherine asked.
"No, why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "You seemed bothered."
"I just didn't like the way that man chased that girl. Something malicious about it. And it's odd to see two people in street clothes on the beach, don't you think?"
"I hardly noticed them." She tapped her temple. "Your little gray cells are working overtime. Relax. You're supposed to be enjoying yourself."
"Thank you for putting me in the same class as the famous fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. Whom we both know is not French. He's -"
"Belgian," they said in unison and laughed.
At that moment, Gil's cell phone rang.