Strangers on a Train

Was working on this one Friday when a comment came in, asking if I knew of a certain book. I’d run across that book, in the place mentioned in the first paragraph of this story, almost 30 years before. Synchronicity, I think, is the word I’m thinking of.

strangers on a train

Strangers on a Train

He rubbed his eyes, looked at his fountain pen – leaking, again – a puddle of deep blue spreading on the paper. He picked up the pen and threw it in a nearby trash can, then took a little packet of tissues out of his jacket and wiped his ink off the paper and tossed that away, too. He looked at his watch and shook his head, packed up his things and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair and walked out to the reception. The old man shoved the register across his desk and he signed his name, once again, then took off down the steps and out onto the snowy walk, but he pulled out his little Leica and took a shot of the stained ochre house. Mann’s last house, at the university, on the hillside overlooking Zurich. Now an archive where he’d spent most of the last week buried in drafts of old manuscripts and correspondence, and where he’d realized he was tired of academia. Of books and musty old curators and anything to do with German history. Even the idea of a life spent researching academic minutia – and in that frame of mind he put his camera away and took off down the hill to the main railway station. He went to the luggage storage window and retrieved his suitcase, then looked up at the departure board over the platforms: his train, an overnight to Rome, was due to board in twenty minutes, so he walked over to a news stand and very nearly dropped his bag when he saw the headlines.

“Shah Abdicates!” Screamed a Swiss paper, and “Khomeini En Route From Paris” was highlighted in blood red on another, from New York. “Oh, no,” he said, now noticing the unusual number of heavily armed police officers walking around the station platforms. ‘Maybe I should just go home,’ he thought. ‘Italy will only be worse.’

But no, he thought, knowing he was, even then, trying to rationalize the decision: he had almost an entire week before the next term began, and after a week in Lübeck and another here in Zurich, he was ready for some sun – and holding to the plan would still be the best thing to do right now. Two more months of snow waited back in Boston, and two more months of winter in that dreary apartment did not appeal to him that much. Preparing the final draft of his dissertation, weeks of consultations with his advisor, integrating his latest research into the middle chapters… No, he needed this time off. He needed to recharge his batteries, maybe meet a girl, have a fling, or just get drunk once or twice…

“Ihre Papiere bitte!”

He jumped back into the present, turned and looked into the eye of a uniformed soldier of some sort. Flanked by men in dark suits. All eying him closely.

“Certainly,” he said in English, and then the men relaxed some.

“You are an Englishman?” the soldier asked.

“No. American,” he said, handing over his maroon ‘special’ passport. The soldier handed the passport to one of the men, and this man stepped forward now, while he scanned the passport in his hand, comparing it to items in a notice on the clipboard in his other hand.

“Herr, excuse me, Mr Douglas, you have been in Zurich for the past week?”

“Yessir.”

“At the Hotel Engadine?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“And before that?”

“In Lübeck, sir, north of Hamburg.”

The man grinned, slightly. “And here? What were you doing?”

“Research, at an archive.”

“Ah? What sort of research?”

“Academic, at the Thomas Mann archives.”

“Research concerning?”

“Mann’s role in convincing FDR that the need for a united front against Hitler was imperative, and…”

“That’s fine. I understand all the rest, yes?” the official said, handing his passport back. “Good afternoon.”

“And you,” he said, and he turned and followed the men with his eyes as they walked across the platform. Stopping other men about his age, he noted, men who looked and were dressed similarly – to himself. “Geesh,” he sighed. “What is that all about?”

He turned again, looked at the departure board, saw the yellow ‘Now Boarding’ indicator was lit up and he picked up two newspapers and paid for them, then walked across the platform, pulling out his ticket as he made his way through the shuffling crowd. Of course his car had to be all the way out the platform, he grumbled, and it was so far out he walked the last hundred meters in falling snow. A conductor checked his ticket and let him board the car, a First Class sleeper, and he trundled down the narrow corridor to his compartment, which was, of course, the farthest from the entrance – at the very end of the train.

He walked in, heaved his suitcase up onto the overhead rack and sat heavily, looked out the window at the snowy scene. The city, defined here by rivers and low commercial buildings, was emptying now as commuters came to the station for their evening ride home, and he saw skiers getting off local trains still in there ski boots, skis parked jauntily over shoulders as they clomped through the station. He saw a woman getting off the train just across the narrow little platform outside his window, saw her stop and look around, then look at his train. Deep burgundy colored coat, red fur collar. Nice legs, rather timeless shoes, burgundy colored pumps, a matching handbag. She looked nervous, yet somehow almost predatory. She possessed a peregrine alertness, like she was searching for something – her eyes registering recognition or threat, and then she turned – looked right at him. He thought he saw a briefest flash of smile, then she walked down the platform and disappeared from view.

And he watched two men appear behind her, just stepping out of the train she had, and they watched her for a moment, then followed in her wake.

“Interesting,” he said, then he picked up a paper and started reading about events in Tehran, and in Washington, wondering what the event meant going forward. A pivotal country in the heart of Persia, loaded with oil, going from staunch American ally to radical Islamic theocracy literally overnight. No wonder there are troops walking the platforms, he thought. After two deep oil price shocks over the past decade, not to mention the almost constant threat of war between Israel and her neighbors, and now the ever-present threat of terrorism – this would be a world-seismic event. And Europe, unlike America, was not separated from these changes by oceans. Parts of the second world war had taken place in the region, and one of Hitler’s goals had been to wrest control of the area’s oil supplies from Britain and America. Now, overnight, the region was in play again.

The train barely shuddered as it backed away from the platform, and he looked out the window as the train moved slowly out of the station, watching the city slip by in near silence. A minute later the train stopped, then changed direction, heading south now, and he resumed reading – an opinion piece about the need to approach Khomeini, try to avert a war of ideologies – and he laughed. That wouldn’t happen, he scoffed. Not in Washington, anyway. The Kremlin might try, simply con their way to a new understanding in order to keep the west off balance, anyway, but that would be the end of it. A new war was beginning, one that would play out over decades, a war that would bring untold changes to the world.

“Oh well,” he sighed. “Maybe academia isn’t such a bad place, after all.” He wasn’t a writer, or even a literary scholar. No, he was an historian, and he had studied foreign policy both as an undergraduate and, now, as a graduate student, so he could teach, easily, or he could go into government. Events taking place now, right now, would define the need for foreign service officers for decades to come. Maybe it was time to begin moving in that direction, he thought. Stop this wooly headed pursuit of academic trivia and move on out into the real world…

His compartment door opened and she was standing there. The burgundy coat with the red fur collar.

“Hallo,” she said, her accent English, as the room porter stepped up behind. “And I see you found our compartment?”

The look in her eyes. The searching, pleading look, so unexpected in a predator. No, someone was looking for her. Someone, or something dangerous. Those men…

“She is with you?” the porter asked.

And he stood, quickly. “Yes, of course. Here, let me help you with your coat…”

She stepped in, and as he helped take her coat he could smell unrelenting fear under layers of travel – and he noticed the conductors leering grin. Some sort of recognition, perhaps, that not all was on the up and up in this compartment – but the old walked away, left him to her devices, and he slid the compartment door to and turned to her.

“Well,” he said, smiling, “so nice to see you again.”

And she smiled too. “Thanks,” she said, looking at him.

“So, who’s chasing you?”

And she shrugged. “Mind if I sit?”

“No, please do.”

She sat by the window and sighed – and he handed her a handkerchief. She nodded, wiped her brow, then leaned back and sighed again.

“Tough day at the office, dear?” he quipped – as he sat down across from her.

She looked at him and laughed a little. “You might say so, yes.”

They heard the conductor coming down the corridor now, checking tickets, and she looked at him again.

“Shoes off,” he said, “feet in my lap. Now.”

And when the conductor opened the door he was rubbing her feet, she leaning back in sudden wedded bliss. “Ihre Fahrkarten, bitte?” the conductor asked.

“Ja, hier sind sie,” he said, handing them over.

He punched the ticket and handed it back. “You are going to Rome, Herr Douglas?”

“Yes, we are. Then on to Paestum. We’re on our honeymoon.”

“Ah. So, perhaps we need some champaign here tonight?”

“Yes, that would be wonderful. Is it possible to have dinner in our room this evening?” he said, handing over a 20 franc note.

“Yes, of course. I’ll see that your porter takes care of you immediately.”

“Thank you,” he said, and the conductor slid the door to again – and he began to move his hands away from her…

“Oh, please,” she said, “don’t stop on my account. I was rather enjoying that.”

He laughed, resumed massaging her feet while he looked her in the eye. “So, do I at least get the short version?”

“No, sorry,” she sighed. “Our honeymoon?”

“Best I could come up with on such short notice.”

She smiled. “God, this feels a little like heaven…”

He looked out the window, saw evening coming on fast now, the snow letting up a little, lights coming on in little chalet-looking homes scattered across the valley floor, cars driving alongside the train as they came into a village, slowing now – but not stopping. The train accelerated away and a lake appeared, the low mountains beyond now etched by the setting sun’s pale orange light.

He took the ball of her foot and pushed it towards her, stretched the tendons on the bottom of her left foot, then he ran his thumbs up the tendon, busting little crystalline nodules along the taught rod – and she twisted in sudden agony, took in a sharp breath – then he rubbed the area gently, before starting up again.

“My God in heaven, what are you doing to me?”

“Calcium crystals build up on that tendon,” he said, rubbing it carefully now, “that’s what makes your feet ache like that. High heels make it worse, I think.”

“Don’t tell me? You’re a foot doctor?”

He laughed. “Not quite. Historian. Had a girl friend in college, she taught me this little trick.”

“Thank God for girlfriends,” she moaned – as his fingers started in on her right foot. He found a big crystal and dug into it with his thumbnails, felt it give way and burst, and she almost screamed as relief flooded up her leg into her back. “Oh…” she sighed.

Another knock on the door, the porter sticking his head in, another leering grin as he looked down at the ongoing massage. “You wanted dinner this evening? In your compartment?”

“Yes, please,” he said, handing over another 20 franc note.

“Ah, very good sir. We have a trout this evening, or a lamb curry?”

And he looked at her. “A curry,” she said, “might be nice.”

“Make that two,” he added. “And perhaps a red wine?”

“I’ll bring a wine list by, sir.”

“Ah. Thanks.”

“Yes, sir,” the porter said, sliding the door closed yet again.

“It’s getting rather busy in here,” she said, leaning forward now, putting her shoes back on. “You should be careful doing that to a perfect stranger, you know?”

“Oh?”

“That’s like an aphrodisiac, or heroin. Addicting, I should think.”

He smiled. “You looked like you could use it?”

“Oh? And how do I look, to you?”

“Tired. Scared. Alone.”

She sat back again, looked up at the ceiling – scowling now.

“You’re very pretty, you know?” he said. “In a dangerous kind of way.”

“Dangerous?”

“Yes. I think it would very easy to fall in love with you, and yet quite dangerous to do so.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, or not?”

“More an observation, I think. Calling you pretty? That was a compliment.”

“I see.”

Another knock, and this time the porter handed over the wine list, as well as a list of snacks and light appetizers. “Cheese and crackers, some hummus and olives, please, and I think we’ll have this Pinot Noir,” he said, pointing to an item on the list.

“Very good, sir.”

She watched him move, his self assuredness a bit of a surprise. She’d wanted a momentary diversion, somewhere to hide for a few minutes, but now she wasn’t so sure if she wanted to leave him just yet. She felt sure she’d lost the men on her tail, but she also knew she could be wrong about that. She was cut off from the outside world inside this little compartment, yet that was a double edged sword she’d have to handle with care. But she felt safe here, safe – for the first time in two days.

“Could I see your ticket?”

“What…oh, sure,” he said as he handed it over.

Douglas Fairchild, ticket issued by an independent travel agent in Cambridge, Massachusetts almost six weeks ago. An historian, but too young to be teaching yet, too old to be an undergrad. So, a grad student. In Zurich. Either religion or foreign policy. She looked up, looked at his clothing: taupe tweed jacket, grey flannel slacks, pale yellow button down shirt, Harvard tie. He was like a walking advertisement, his appearance screaming ‘I’m an Ivy Leaguer!’ – and he probably had a serious foot fetish thing going under that staid Brook’s Brothers veneer.

She handed his ticket over and held up her leg. “What do you think of these shoes?” she said, flexing her foot suggestively in the air between them.

“Classic lines. When I saw you out there I thought you looked a little like Audrey Hepburn. Good choice.”

Another knock on the door: a small bottle of champagne, a tray of appetizers appeared and were set out on a small rolling table, and the door zipped shut.

“I think I’ll go wash up,” he said, and he disappeared down the corridor. She took a cracker and a slice of something mild and white, took a bite and sighed. Her first food all day, and she realized she was famished. He came back in a few minutes later, looked at her as he stood there, then he shrugged.

“Two of them,” he said quietly, watching her reaction.

“What’s that?”

“Two men. My guess, middle eastern, probably Iranian, maybe Israeli. They’re following you, asking the porter about you.”

She nodded her head. “What did he say?”

“That he hadn’t seen anyone fitting your description.”

“I see.”

He opened the champagne, poured her a glass, then sat. “You have the loveliest eyes,” he said. “What color – hazel or green – I can’t quite tell in this light?”

“More green I think,” she said, looking at him anew, trying to figure him out.

Another knock on the door, and the porter slipped inside, pulled the door to. “The conductor told me they are Iranian,” he said. “And that there are two more of them onboard.”

He nodded his head, took two one hundred franc notes out and handed them over. “Keep me posted, Emile.”

“Certainly, sir. We have a french onion soup this evening. Should I bring two down?”

“Yes, Emile, if you please.”

She watched this exchange with a growing sense of alarm, and no small amount of wonder. ‘Who is this man?’ echoed in her thoughts, then: ‘Is he dangerous?’

He took a cracker, looked over the cheese and shaved a bit of gruyere from a small block and took a bite, rolled his eyes. “Oh, God, I love this stuff,” he said, then he took a sip of champagne. “I could move here, you know, just to have cheese this good every day.”

“What?”

He chuckled, took another bite – sip, then leaned back. “So? What about you? Obviously from Devonshire. So Oxford, and, by the nature of these circumstances, I’d say MI6.”

She was speechless now. And not at all happy. “Devonshire? What makes you say that?”

“Your hair. Skin and eyes, too, but your accent is the give away.”

“You’ve spent time there, I take it?”

“My junior year. Oxford.”

“Ah, but that’s not all there is to it?”

“No. My Grandfather has property, near Wells.”

“Indeed? And you visit – quite a lot?”

“Used to, yes. Not so much recently.”

Another knock – and Emile came in with two soups. He put them on the table and took off their covers, grated cheese on top of croutons and disappeared again.

“Damn,” he said, “that smells a little bit like heaven.”

Still speechless as unseen implications rolled over her, she watched him eat for a while, then leaned over, started in on her crock. ‘Fairchild?’ she wondered. ‘Douglas Fairchild? Have I heard that name somewhere before? Could he be agency? Or is that his legend, and he’s moving about under an assumed identity? Well, there’s no way to tell now, is there?’

She looked at him again, now putting hummus on a cracker, then some cheese – oblivious. Or was his carelessness simply an act?

‘Perhaps I should just kill him – before he kills me…’

But no…there was something about him. In his eyes, perhaps. An unexpected kindness. A steadiness of temperament. Learned, almost a patrician air in his learnedness. Like a lion, she thought. A bored, sated lion, or a comic book hero – about to go soft from too little action.

“You know,” he said as he looked up from his soup, “they never put enough cheese on top.”

“Don’t they?”

“I suppose it would turn into a soupy, oniony fondue, but I can never get enough.”

She smiled at that. “You never make your own?”

He looked up. “No. Suppose I could learn, but I’m always too tired to cook when I get in.”

“Tired? Your studies?”

“God, yes. Twelve hour days in the library, day after day. And I’ve been leading freshman seminars since August. That added about 300 pages a week to the load.”

“What are you studying?”

“FDR, for the most part. How he struggled to build a coalition, a political coalition, to overcome the isolationism building before Lend-Lease.”

“Why the interest?”

“My grandfather again. He was in the House of Representatives then, and FDR enlisted his support.”

‘Fairchild?’ she heard an inner voice say. ‘Douglas Fairchild?’

“Your grandfather…is he in the Senate?”

He nodded his head. “Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.”

She swallowed hard, made a series of quick recalculations – as now, her mission had just been put on hold. She had just led this kid into serious danger, serious danger that could blowback all over the Prime Minister, endanger the so-called Special Relationship. Her job was no longer to get information to headquarters, it was to protect this boy from her carelessness, and his bad luck. Iranian agents might try to take her out, and they might very well take out this kid, too – while not knowing who they were dealing with, let alone what the repercussions might be.

“It is good soup,” she said as she took a spoonful, then a sip of champagne.

“You look like you just swallowed a squirrel,” he said, looking at her.

“What?”

“Nervous. You suddenly look very nervous. More nervous than just a few minutes ago.”

“I am.”

“Me?”

“Certainly you. I’ve led you into real danger. Inadvertently, but nevertheless.”

“That’s okay. I can take care of it.”

“Oh? Look, I don’t know who you think you can call, maybe the Marines or something, but there are four or more hostile agents closing in on me – as we speak, and you might get in their way. Understand?”

He nodded, took another cracker and spread hummus on it, shaved off another bit of gruyere and popped the whole thing in his mouth – then he smiled at her.

She couldn’t tell if he was deliberately trying to infuriate her, or if he was simply the most obtuse human being in the long, boring history of male chauvinism – then he took yet another sip of champagne. ‘I may kill him myself,’ she thought, ‘and save the world the trouble…’ He looked up at her and grinned, blinked rapidly several times.

“You know, you’re taking all this a little too seriously.”

“Perhaps you aren’t taking things seriously enough.”

“Perhaps because I don’t know what’s going on. Just what on earth did you do? And to whom?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t…”

“I know, I know. Well, tell me, did you kill someone?”

And she looked away, tried to hide her eyes.

“Ah,” he said. “I see. So these gentlemen are a little pissed off.”

“You could say that, yes.”

He stood and pulled his suitcase down from the overhead rack, unzipped a side compartment and pulled out a little black pouch, then he put the suitcase back. He sat next and unzipped the case, pulled out a little Walther, and a silencer, then screwed it on. He took the magazine out and checked the load, then chambered a round – and handed her the pistol.

“What,” she said, “are you doing?”

“I’m assuming you know what this thing does, and how to use it better than I do, so you take it. If I tried to use it I’d probably shoot my foot off.”

She looked at the pistol, an Israeli special. A TPK, 22 short, designed for close range head shots. “Ammunition?”

“Israeli,” he said.

“Jesus.”

“Don’t hold it close. I keep it as far away from soft tissues as I can.”

“Who…?”

“My dad.”

“Is he…?”

“Yup. Career. Seventh floor.”

“Oh dear God. This just gets better ‘n better.”

He laughed.

Emile knocked on the door, brought in two curries and a bottle of red. “They are in the dinning car right now. Six of them. Four Iranian passports, two Swiss.”

“Emile? I’m going to need to use the radio-telephone.”

“But it is not for public use, sir.”

“I understand. Perhaps it will be better if a dozen or so people are killed by terrorists on this train during the night?”

“I’ll have the conductor come by in a few minutes, sir.”

“Thanks, Emile.”

“We’re going into the Alps now,” she said. “Poor radio signal.”

“We will be, until Milan.”

“Where is this train going, anyway?”

He laughed. “That’s right, I forgot. Rome – by way of Milan, and Genoa. The coastal route. How’s that curry, by the way?”

“Swiss,” she said, not quite making a face.

“Ah.”

“And where are you headed? Rome?”

“Paestum. I wanted to walk the ruins there. And you?”

“I was going to try for our embassy, but the way was cut off.”

“So, any ole embassy will do?”

“Theoretically. I’ll be blown, but yes.”

“What’s optimal?”

“Disappear. Make my way back to town.”

“You married?”

“Me? Heavens, no. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

“Well, are you?”

“Married? No, I came close…but, no.”

“What’s next? Teach?”

“Maybe. My father would like me to sign up, grandfather wants me to go to State.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I wish I knew…”

Another knock on the door, the conductor sliding the door open quietly. “You need to contact the authorities, Herr Fairchild?”

“I do,” he said, then he turned to her. “And is there a name I should reference?”

She leaned close and whispered in his ear.

“You’re joking!” he said, but she shook her head and he took off with the conductor – while Emile came inside the little compartment and sat with her while he was away.

Which wasn’t long.

“Did you get through?” she asked once they were alone again.

He nodded his head. “Yup, but the neighbors were watching.”

“Indeed.”

“The RT is right by the dining car. They’re just sitting in there, drinking coffee.”

“Gearing up for a long night.”

“As will we,” he said. “I’ve got strudel and coffee inbound, and I’ve got a deck of cards in the suitcase. Play gin?”

“Of course. And I’ll beat your ass into the ground, too.”

“That sounds kind of like a challenge,” he said, grinning.

“No, not at all. More a warning, a fait accompli. I’m going to kick your ass all around this little compartment, that’s all.”

“Assuming your name isn’t George Smiley, think you could tell me your real name?”

“George Smiley.”

“I see. Guess I deserved that, huh?”

She smiled, tried not to be too ironic about it, then Emile knocked and cleaned up their dishes, spread a fresh tablecloth and laid out silverware for dessert and coffee – then disappeared again, returning a moment later with two mountainous globs of strudel and a carafe of coffee. He produced a bowl of schlagsahne next, and heaped it on each pastry – leaving the bowl with their coffees before he disappeared, and they looked at the size of their desserts, then at one another.

“Dear God,” they said in unison, then they laughed for the longest time.

He took down his suitcase again and dug out his deck of cards, and when the cabin was squared away again he opened the deck and shuffled it. She cut and he dealt their hands, and a few drops in she ginned.

He raised an eyebrow, then dealt another hand – and she smoked him, again.

‘Something’s not right,’ he sighed, and he leaned forward, dealt again, and lost again.

“Odd,” he said.

“Isn’t it?”

Then he discovered her trick.

Dangling a shoe off her toe, moving her legs just so…and he grinned, went into the tiny head and stuffed a towel down into his briefs, rolled up just so. He went out and splayed himself just enough to reveal a monstrous bulge – and he took the next four games.

“This is too much fun,” he said, and then he moved around a little, pulled the towel up from it’s hiding place.

“Bastard!” she cried.

“Bitch!” he echoed, then he leaned over and put her shoe firmly back on her foot.

“Oops.”

“I’ve never seen such underhanded play before,” he said, smiling.

“Works, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“I had you pegged after five minutes.”

“I wonder what that says about you?”

She arched her eyebrows rapidly a few times, then grinned. “I’ll never tell.”

“You know, I feel certain you won’t.”

“Anymore coffee in that thing?” she asked.

And she felt the change before she heard anything – he did, too. Someone outside their door, listening. Then trying the lock. Her hand, going for the little Walther. Then Emile’s voice, down the corridor: “Excuse me, but you are in the wrong car! You must leave! NOW!” Hastily retreating footsteps – she putting the pistol away – then Emile, knocking on the door.

“Come in!” he said.

“This is the second time they have tried to come into this car. I have alerted the conductor, and we will try to put them off at the next stop.”

“No need,” she said. “They’ll just put someone else on at the next stop, and then we won’t know who they are.”

“But…”

“My concern, Emile,” he said, quickly trying to cover her mistake, “is the terrorists might set off a bomb if we tried that, or take hostages.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Just let them come, Emile,” he added, “but turn off the corridor lights.”

“Okay.”

Emile cleared the dishes on the rolling trolley, and a few minutes later the lights went out.

“You do know,” he said, “we’re the last room in the last car of this train.”

“Nothing behind us?”

“No. I, uh, well I borrowed Emile’s key, unlocked the door.”

“You didn’t?”

“Here’s my plan…”

A half hour later he felt that same presence, knew someone was just outside the door, and a moment later the door started to slide open. He saw a small silenced pistol slide past the curtain, then the man appeared – and he seemed startled to find an American, alone, sitting there making a sh-h-h gesture – with one finger up to his lips – then pointing at the folded berth over his head.

“She’s in there,” he whispered, and the Iranian nodded his head as he stepped up to the bed and tripped the release…

At which point she stepped out of the tiny head and with one – pffft – the agent fell to the floor, grabbing at the small, fatal head wound.

“Okay,” he said as he picked up the man, “you get the door.”

She stepped out into the corridor, saw it was clear and stepped aft, quietly, then opened to outer door – and he tossed the body out the back. Seconds later they were back in the compartment, and a minute later they heard Emile knocking on the door.

“Yes,” he said as he slid the door open an inch or two.

“Did you hear something?” Emile asked, trying to see into the compartment.

“I’m so sorry, Emile. When she gets on top she gets a little wild. I think it has something to do with the motion, ya know?”

“Oh, dear. Oh, no, excuse me…” Emile said as he retreated to his compartment at the other end of the car.

Twenty minutes later the presence announced itself again, and exactly as before the door slid open, the curtain parted when a silenced pistol entered, he sh-h-h’ed the man and whispered she was above, and when the man tripped the release she dispatched him. Two minutes later they were back in the compartment.

“This is too easy…” he said.

“They won’t fall for that one again.”

“Okay, let’s try this…”

Twenty minutes later the door slid open and the gun appeared; when the man entered the compartment he saw another man splayed out face down on the floor, apparently dead.  When he bent down to check for a pulse – pffft – down he went too, then out the back door.

“Was that number three?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What are they? Morons?”

She broke out giggling.

“This is like Laurel & Hardy. I thought these guys are supposed to mean, ruthless killers?”

“Well, they are.”

“But they’re fucking morons!”

“Stop it,” she said, doubling over, laughing hysterically now.

The door flew open, the next assassin rushed in – and he took the gun right out of the man’s hand and she stuck the Walther up to his left eye and – pffft – down he went, right into his waiting arms.

“I’m getting tired of this,” he said. “Maybe tie one hand behind my back? Something, anything to give these morons a fighting chance?”

Forty minutes later the last two were dispatched and they stood there, looking out the back door, letting the frigid mountain air wash over their sweat-soaked bodies – when Emile walked up.

“This door is supposed to be closed, locked!” Emile said as he scurried up, and he shut the door, felt for his key.

“What are you looking for, Emile?”

“My key, for the door?”

“Is that it,” he said, pointing at a key on the linoleum floor.

“Ah, just so. Thank you.”

“Fell out of your pocket.”

“Ah.”

“Where are the Iranians?”

“They seem to have disappeared?”

“Really? How strange?”

“Yes, we just looked from one end of the train to the other, and not a sign of them.”

“Curious. How long until we reach Milan?”

“Oh, about an hour.”

“I’m expecting a business associate to join us there. Name is Jones.”

“Of course, sir. You’ll still be up?”

“Up? Why, yes Emile. I’ll still be up.”

“Very good, sir.”

“You’re awful,” she said once Emile was safely out of range.

“I am? Why?”

“You’ll still be – up!” she said, her pointing finger popping straight up.”

“Oh. That. Wishful thinking on my part.”

She smiled. “It is?” she asked.

“Yup.”

“Well, how long do we have?”

But he shook his head. “You know? I’ve never had a one night stand, and I’m not sure I want to, even with you.”

And she kissed him, once, before she got off the train in Milan. Teams from the CIA and MI6 escorted her to a waiting transport, and she was in London hours before he made it to Rome. He walked the ruins in Paestum, and in the winter light the old Greek temples took on the soft aires of forgotten dreams. He walked and walked, took dozens of rolls of film, all black and white, which seemed to fit his mood better than color.

He flew home on a Pan Am 747 and once back in Boston he rode the T out to Cambridge and found he’d forgotten to leave the heat on inside his apartment. His jet lag was terrible for days, and he walked around in a fog, barely able to come to terms with the things he’d done, so the next weekend he hopped on the shuttle and flew down to National. His father was waiting for him at the gate.

And uncharacteristically, his father was very quiet on the ride home. Once they were home, once he’d put his suitcase back in his old bedroom, he went downstairs and got a Coke, then went to his father’s study.

“Shut the door, son.”

He did.

“So, how was Zurich? Get much done?”

“A bit, yessir.”

“And how many people did you kill on that train?”

“Me sir? Technically, zero.”

And his father smiled. “Let me rephrase. How men dead men did you throw out the back of that train?”

“Six, sir.”

His father leaned forward, his face turning redder by the second, then all that pressure released. “Kind of fun, isn’t it?”

“Sir?”

“Bad guys? It’s kind of fun, popping them in the head like that. Sorry you didn’t get to take out a few.”

“Sir?”

“The first dozen or so are the toughest. Gets easier after that.”

“Sir?”

“Still, everyone down in Yorktown that’s read the after-action report thinks you’ve got what it takes, son. You know Russian, German and French, and you have the background. When are you going to decide?”

“Sir, I’ve put in my application, with the Peace Corps.”

He flew back up to Boston on Sunday morning, still unconvinced that a life of killing spies was the life for him, but he had promised his father not to decide about the Peace Corps until his dissertation had been defended and approved for publication, so he sequestered himself in his apartment and began writing in February, and he emerged from time to time, for groceries, mainly, and he wrote and wrote. March passed, then April and May. Then June and July. And August, too, but at last his work was at an end and he took it to a professional typist, then to his advisor, who took it first to one committee, then another. He was called in the middle of September to defend his dissertation, and he did so on the third day of October. A month later he was notified: he would receive his PhD in December.

“So GramPa, what’d you do next?” his granddaughter asked, swaying in the rail car.

“Well, when I walked home to that little apartment, your Grandmother was waiting for me right there, out on the front steps.”

“Yes, but who was she?”

“Who? Oh, that spy, from Britain.”

“From Devonshire?”

“That’s the one. She was waiting, said she had been for a few hours, and that’s when we made your father.”

“GramPa! You’re not supposed to say things like that!”

“What? We didn’t do it in the road! We went upstairs!”

“So, you’re telling me GramMa was a spy?”

“Yup. And a pretty good one, too, as it turned out.”

“Golly, that’s kind of hard to believe, you know?”

“Hmm? Why’s that?”

“Well…it’s GramMa! I mean, she’s just a little old lady!”

“Oh…is that what she is…?”

“I guess she’s more than that, huh?”

“You know, you never seem to talk to her all that much and I think she misses that. Maybe she’d like to get to know you better.”

“It looks different out here,” the little girl said – going to the window, looking out over passing farmland and trees.

“How so?”

“Like there’s more water here, more rain.”

“That’s true. This part of England gets a lot of rain. Do you know why?”

She shook her head, still gazing out the window.

“Well, it has something to do with a water current. Does that ring a bell?”

“The Gulf Stream!”

“That’s right. Now why don’t we go down and talk to GramMa for a while.”

“I don’t know. I think I’m a little afraid of her now.”

“Afraid? Why?”

“Well, you said GranMa killed people…”

“Yes, so? Soldiers kill people all the time? Are you afraid of soldiers?”

She nodded her head. “Yes. Kinda.”

“And police officers kill people too. Are you afraid of them, too.”

Again, she nodded her head.

“What about those big, bad terrorists? Are you afraid of them?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding her head big time.

“Well, somebody has to kill the terrorists too, don’t they?”

“Yes,” she said quietly, “I suppose so.”

“You suppose?”

“GramPa, why are we going out to that old house?”

“To Devonshire?”

“Yes.”

“Well, after your grandmother and I got married, we lived there for a long time. I worked in London, and your GramMa continued to work, well, as a spy. Your father was born here, too.”

“Did she kill more people?”

“Why don’t you go ask her that? You can ask her about all kinds of things, you know? She helped a lot more people than she hurt.”

“Did she?”

“Yes.” He stood and held out his hand, helped her out the door and down the narrow little corridor, and he knocked on her door.

The nurse came and let them in, and his granddaughter slipped inside, through the little curtain beyond the sliding door, then he turned and went back to his compartment. He sat by the glass, looked at the passing landscape through a reflection he saw there. His face, staring back, and the passing landscape beyond, merging. He hardly recognized the old man in the glass, then realized he hardly knew that old man at all.

The trees and farms looked the same, he thought, but not me. Everything out there looked caught in amber, frozen in time, but not me. Not her.

How many more weeks do we have together?

Time, so precious now. So inescapably precious.

His time, with her, the most precious thing of all. But so too was the little time those two could share. So much would be passed along. Memories would be made, memories to last a lifetime. The little girl was old enough now, and she was bright enough; she would remember. His wife would pass along the secrets of a lifetime, just as he had passed on those secrets to his son.

He looked at the eyes in the glass. His eyes, so unchanged, looking back into God only knows – like strangers on a train, chancing to know one another.

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Hope you enjoyed. Happy trails… A

 

5 thoughts on “Strangers on a Train

  1. A moment that grew into a lifetime.
    There are so many chapters waiting to fill in the gaps.

    Even the cheese tray brought back memories. And I could hear the music in the background.

    Like

      • I’ve been raised in a small town near Lübeck. I remember the times I’d been taken to that grand hall being overwhelmed by the history-charged atmosphere and especially the many ships.
        Concerning Mann, after a recent informative and troubling trip through Israel and Palestine my wife is currently struggling through ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’. You’ll probably have an idea of that task.

        Like

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