The French Teacher

By on Sep 24, 2010 in Fiction

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Papier mache mask

Bertrand arrived in a good mood, though slightly edgy.  He was carrying a paper grocery bag in addition to his briefcase.  The bag was rolled halfway down, stapled shut, and contained something the size of a box or large book.  He set the briefcase on the dining room table where they usually worked, but continued to hold the bag.

“What’s that?” said Julianne, wondering if it was a gift for her.

His expression was evasive.  “It’s just something that belongs to me,” he said.  “I have nowhere to keep it.  Would you do me a favor and hold it here for me?  Your house would be safe for it.”

“Oh,” she said, at a loss for words.  Her mind was in turmoil.  “But…you would need to tell me what it is.  I mean, I can’t —”

He looked offended.  “It is nothing criminal, Miss, nothing you need be afraid of!  Why would you think that I would ask you to hide something against the law?  I am hurt that you would think such a thing!”

She flushed, for that was indeed what she’d thought. “I — I don’t know,” she said.

He suddenly looked older and tired.  “All right, then; I won’t bother you again.”

“No, wait,” she said.  “You can leave it here.  For a while.”  She held out her hand for the bag.

As if he was having second thoughts, Bertrand hesitated.  Then he handed it over.


Of course, she never expected to honor his probable wish that she not look into the bag.  Perhaps he trusted her.  But why should he?  Though she did not like this about herself, she had, more than once, read other people’s mail when they’d left it lying about, and she had occasionally looked into their medicine cabinets and drawers.  Not often, but there you were, she’d done it.  And here this thing was, in her own home.  She convinced herself that she had every right to look.  How well did she know Bertrand?  Hardly at all, through no fault of her own.  It was his choice not to reveal himself.

Karen seemed to agree with her.  “Hey,” she said.  “He expects you to guard something, he should tell you what it is.  What if some pissed-off drug dealer shows up, some maniac who bursts into the house and beats you up, or worse?  Why should you stick your neck out for him?”

And so, after three days, Julianne decided to open the package.

She bent back the staples holding it shut and removed them.  When she rolled open the bag, she saw a cardboard box sealed with masking tape several times over.  This would take some doing.  Meticulously, she unwound the tape, only in a few places tearing it slightly, until she was able to open the box.  It was packed with money and a passport.

 “How much money?” said Karen, when Julianne called her.

“I’m counting it now,” she said.  “Let’s see…. a lot.  It’s random, though, so hard to count.  I mean, it’s not in neat piles of twenties or anything.”

Eventually, she said, “I think there’s about eight thousand dollars, probably more.”

“Holy shit.  Who does the passport belong to?” asked Karen.

“It’s got Bertrand’s picture on it, but not his name.  It’s some other African name — ‘Fortune Atangana.’  It gives a birth date I know isn’t his actual birthday, because one time he told me a story about getting off from work for his birthday during the Christmas holidays.  This birth date here is September 19, 1970.”

“The question is,” said Karen, “which is the real one?”

“You mean —”

“I mean, is his name really Bertrand Gbadyu or Fortune Atangana?  And why would he have two names?”

“And eight thousand dollars in a cardboard box?”

“Did you ever find out if he’s a Muslim?” asked Karen.

“He won’t discuss religion,” said Julianne.  “Absolutely refuses.”

They were silent for a moment.  Julianne was remembering the Muslim Africans in the restaurant.   

“He could indeed be Muslim,” said Karen.  “This all looks fishy.”

“It does,” agreed Julianne.  “This is the kind of thing terrorists do, isn’t it?  Stash their money in places, using unsuspecting people to help them, then disappearing into the night.  Right after some horrible bomb goes off.”

“Yeah, you see those people interviewed on the news,” said Karen.  “They always say they had no idea the guy was a terrorist, that he was just their neighbor and kept to himself.”

“Like serial killers,” said Julianne.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Julianne said.


That night, she could not sleep, though she eventually swallowed melatonin and valerian, supplements that usually knocked her out.  Her mind whirled around the possibility, which now had taken on outsized proportions, that Bertrand could be a terrorist.  Since 9/11, Julianne had been of the opinion that the whole thing was an inside job.  She trusted the Bush administration about as much as she would a black widow spider in her bed.  Yet, now faced with the possibility, no matter how far-fetched, that she could be aiding and abetting someone who might do the country harm, she found herself turning almost militant.

Would she feel differently, much less concerned, if Bertrand had shown an interest in her? Would she be dismissing the thing entirely if that was the case?

She let herself run down that road for a moment, then quickly turned back.  Since it hadn’t happened, there was no need to speculate.

She sat bolt upright in the bed.  It was possible that if she did nothing about this, people could die.       

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Margaret Karmazin’s credits include 140 stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards. Her story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has had stories included in Still Going Strong, Ten Twisted Tales, Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance), Zero Gravity, Cover of Darkness and M-Brane Sci-Fi Quarterlies #2 and #4, and a novel, Replacing Fiona, published by