A train, a gem and a misunderstanding.

Submitted into Contest #27 in response to: Write a short story that takes place on a train.... view prompt

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The sound of the wheels on the track made the conventional clickety-clack sound with a gradual increase in rapidity. As the train pulled out of the station, Fiona had noticed, not without some pleasure, that the train was attracting considerable attention. It is not so very often that a steam train pulls away from a major British Railway Station in England, well not in the 21st century anyway. So there were random people staring, some smiled and a few waved whilst a small cohort of train spotters photographed, recorded the sound of the train and noted the number in their little notebooks. Fiona wondered what drew people to become train spotters but she didn’t wonder for very long. 

She had stood patiently on the platform watching her fellow passengers board the train with an array of luggage as compartments were pointed out to each new passenger. She waited until she was sure he had boarded before she stepped forward to have her documentation checked and confirmed. She climbed aboard the aging but immaculately maintained train and watched where he went. As she had predicted, he walked to the bar and sat on a stool sipping a dark spirit from a crystal glass as the train prepared to leave. 

He was an attractive man. He was tall, slim and blonde haired. He had long limbs which terminated in long fingers elegantly wrapped around his glass. Despite the sharp suit and the black Oxford shoes, the completion of his polished look with a silk tie and matching handkerchief just peeping out of his breast pocket, did not conceal the melancholy on his face. Fiona had seen photographs but had not expected the man to be so pleasing in appearance. He spoke to no one except to request a refill of his glass. He seemed oblivious to his fellow passengers, most of whom were excited to be partaking in such a journey; in fact he seemed oblivious to everything except the reassuring content of his glass. Fiona thought he looked rather sad and more than a little lost. 

She continued down the corridor towards the dining car and as she entered, slipped into a seat giving her a good view of the majority of the carriage. The construction of the seating and tables ensured, without standing up, she could not see the whole carriage regardless of where she positioned herself. He would follow her in soon as she knew they were both booked for the same dinner seating. She hoped he would sit within her field of vision. 

The majority of the passengers were dressed for the occasion adding their own sparkle and glamour to the silverware and crystal glasses which shone in the late afternoon sunlight. The sun was setting behind the city sky line and as gradually the buildings gave way to pastoral idylls, the train continued its journey with its gentle sway and reassuring soundtrack. Steam trains travel at a more decorous speed than modern trains and the whole ambience was one of a past age of elegant travel. The train was making a summer evening journey from the city to the coast and passengers would spend the night on board before travelling on to Europe in the early morning. For most passengers this was an exciting start to a longer journey. 

To Fiona’s surprise, as he entered the dining car, he asked if he may join her. The table was set for two after all. Fiona stared hesitantly. Did he know she was following him? In the hustle and bustle of the station, had he been able to single her out? Did he know her role was to watch him and see if he contacted anyone else on the train? Was this some kind of bluff or double bluff? He repeated his request to join her. As if sensing she was about to decline, the waiter, hovering nearby, smilingly explained the dining car was busy and if the lady didn’t mind sharing her table, it would be a help.  Drawn from her ponderings, Fiona acquiesced to the request and smiled at her new companion. She held out her hand stating her name as she did so. He responded by taking her hand and declaring himself to be Daniel Hardwick. Her facial expression must have betrayed her for an instant and she was grateful he was occupied with taking his seat. However, he had caught her look and smiling asked:

“You don’t like the name Daniel? Or you prefer to dine in solitude? I can keep silent if that helps.”

Flushing slightly, Fiona answered that she had no such thought, Daniel was perfectly fine name, dining alone was not an activity she would choose and silence would be worse than solitude, it would be awkward and uncomfortable as they were to sit together. Her surprise was that he was offering his real name to her. Why would he do that? 

The meal passed pleasantly enough. He was actually a good dinner companion. The food was very good and they chatted about this and that, nothing of any significance at all. Eventually he posed the rather obvious question she had hoped to avoid, in fact she successfully had avoided until coffee was sitting in front of them. 

“So why are you making this journey tonight?”

After a slight pause she answered:

“It’s a work thing. I’m a freelance, very part time writer and writing a piece on travel, which I hope will be published in a magazine.” 

It was a lie. 

“Shouldn’t you be taking lots of notes?”

“No. Well yes, but my memory is fairly robust. I’ll write up some notes later.”

That wasn’t a lie. 

The silence that now followed began to make Fiona feel uncomfortable. Why was Daniel making her uncomfortable? What was it about this amiable and pleasant, well turned out man that unsettled her? Suddenly he broke the silence as he leaned forward and announced:

“You think I have a stolen ruby with me, perhaps on my person, perhaps in my luggage and you have been sent here to see if I pass it on to anyone else. I am not a big enough fish for you and your bosses to be concerned with, well not today anyway, but I may be the link which can lead to those you really want to catch.”

Leaning back in his seat he smiled at her. She felt sick and hollowed out. All she had been asked to do was to watch and report back. Fiona was just starting out and this train journey was a sort of initiation test. It was her first practical solo activity since she had passed her exams. Her father was a private investigator and had asked her to do this one thing… it supposed to be easy and uncomplicated and a way for her to join the family firm. Finding she had no voice, no ability to get up and move away and no idea what do next; she sat there, staring, blank and bewildered. Daniel kept up the smile for what seemed like an eternity. Progressively it started to fade. He began to look as bewildered as Fiona felt.  For a while they stared at one another in embarrassing silence. 

“I’m joking!” He stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m obviously not a jewel thief. It was a joke. You know, funny… haha… amusing. You look like you believe me.”

Fiona drew a deep breath.

“Well, you sounded so convincing.” She paused then added trying to sound nonchalant. “I feel you have a gem in your breast pocket right now and you’re about to pass it to some international smuggling ring.”

She didn’t sound convincingly nonchalant and she knew it. Daniel looked askance but smiled.  

“Well, I’m not. Sorry to disappoint.”

After a moment or two they returned to exchanging the pleasantries of strangers. It was stilted conversation. 

“So, are you looking for a jewel thief?” Daniel ventured to ask. 

Fiona thought carefully before answering. 

“In a way, I am. You know something to add some spice to my travel writing. A mystery on a train, it has all the echoes of an Agatha Christie story. I might be able to branch out into fiction as well as travel writing.”

This time she sounded more convincing. 

“You’re comment startled me because it was exactly what I had been thinking about, that’s all.” she added.

“I know we only met a couple of hours ago but how would you feel about helping me with a rather significant problem?” Daniel posed the question with all the enthusiasm of a small child being instructed to eat Brussel sprouts. He looked at her with that same melancholy expression she had seen on his face when he sat at the bar. Fiona felt an empathy with this man. It was not just his good looks which endeared him to her, but something about his demeanour, which suggested he did need help and if nothing else, she wanted to help, not just him but anyone in need. With some tentativeness and not a little timidity, she answered in the affirmative, that if she could help, she would help. Her facial expression and body language spelled out that there were boundaries to this offer. 

“I am in trouble. I have been sent on to this train by my boss, I cannot say who I work for, to watch a man, who has stolen a gem, well actually an emerald necklace, which we are pretty sure he has now dismantled and is carrying the stones with him. The man is employed to steal items to order. He is going to pass them on to his accomplices in France.  Unfortunately, I think he knows I am following him and I need you to help to watch him. Can you help?”

Relaxing as Daniel was speaking, Fiona saw a way to both mitigate the potential disaster which she had faced a few minutes ago and also to help both this man and her father. She agreed and listened intently as he told her about the man he was supposed to be watching. How they had accidentally bumped into each other in the station coffee shop; Fiona sniggered to herself. He reported how the man had eyed Daniel suspiciously from that point onwards and Daniel, feeling he had failed, had resorted to single malt in the train bar. He knew he could not track the man now; he needed help. The plea in his voice reiterated Fiona’s resolve. Surprisingly he did not ask anything about her at all. He simply wanted, what he described as a pretty woman with social skills, to watch and if necessary, befriend the man. He had selected to have dinner with her to ensure she met these criteria. Fiona blushed at the thought of being described as pretty and was flattered that her social skills passed the assessment of this man, but pulled her thoughts back to the issue in hand. For a moment, she wondered who he worked for and if this was legal, but then it was only a request to do what she should have been doing in the first place. She could follow the dark-haired man, apparently in his thirties. He wore tortoise shell glasses and sported a beard. He was of an athletic build.  

Fiona set about her task moving to watch as the man consumed a brandy in the bar. She half-smiled at him when he glanced in her direction but returned her gaze immediately to her book. He came across and sat near her but did not speak or engage with her. Eventually he rose, spoke briefly to another man, passed him a small parcel from inside his breast pocket and left the carriage. Using her mobile phone, Fiona had managed to film the brief encounter without, she was certain, being observed. Anyone watching would assume she was catching up with her social media accounts. 

She emailed the video to her father and received an almost immediate text response. Her father asked what this was and where was Daniel. She rang her father and told him of the mistake and that this other man had not been the man to watch, not Daniel. He said there was no mistake then asked again where Daniel was. She returned to the dining car but Daniel had gone. He was not in the bar. As the train pulled into a station, Fiona glanced out of the window and standing on the platform was Daniel. She saw him too late to leave the train. He mocked her with a bow which would have been more at home in the court of Elizabethan England, smiled and waved as the train pulled out of the station. He vanished in a plume of steam. 

Fiona shuddered. She did not know what to do next. It was a steam train, moving slowly and the doors might open even if the train was moving. She rushed to the door, opened the window and managed to turn the handle from the outside. Surprised that is gave way she jumped and landed at the furthest edge of the platform as it began to slope away towards the embankment. Steadying herself, she waited until the train had pulled away and her legs had stopped shaking. Straightening up, she started to creep towards the station buildings. 

The steam and the darkness made it difficult to see much, but as the steam cleared, Fiona saw Daniel talking to a man by the station café. The man had his back to Fiona. She pulled out her phone and set it to video as she crept a little closer, keeping close to the edge of the building and as out of sight as she could manage. The words were inaudible and the conversation short. Daniel took something from his breast pocket and handed it over to the man; the second man turned towards the café and in the light Fiona recognised him as the man in tortoise shell glasses. He smiled, holding the parcel in his hand, muttered something to Daniel and went into the café. Daniel left the station. 

Feeling she had succeeded at last and Fiona sent the video to her father. He told her to come home. The handover had taken place in England, not as expected in Europe.  Others would take over now. Fiona began to feel relief and with it a sense of reality began to kick in. She was standing on a station platform wearing a cocktail dress, scuffed shoes and with no coat, no luggage and runs in her stockings. Only a small evening bag, still hanging from her shoulder, offered the reassurance of a credit card and the method of getting home. Real life was nothing like the movies as she surrendered to an uncontrollable shaking. Adrenalin caused it and would slowly ebb away. She waiting in the cool evening until the second man left the café and then, feeling it was safe to proceed, she exited the platform. She bought a ticket back to London on the first available train and sat in the waiting room to wait. 

So, this was what life could be like. She had learned much during her training, but nothing had really prepared her for the reality of this work. Confusing and risky were the two words which sprang to mind. The more she thought the more she determined to change the words: utterly baffling and downright dangerous seemed more apposite. And she would have to be more detached, it was no good falling for flattery or feeling sympathy or empathy for anyone. Still, even with a couple of glitches, she had done what she had been sent out to do. That was something, a start, a promising beginning. 

February 06, 2020 17:37

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