tagRomanceStrangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train

byAdrian Leverkuhn©

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.

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byAdrian Leverkuhn© 1 comments/ 14829 views/ 24 favorites

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