This is for Alaina, mainly. It’s the first chapter of a story I started, oh, a couple years back maybe? It’s full of inconsistencies and contradictions but hey, I’m still kinda fond of it. 😉
Midnight Train To Danger
The train raced along the tracks, drawing me ever nearer to my destination. The dull clacking of the wheels had subsided into a distant rumbling, strangely soothing to my ears. Combined with the constant rocking motion of the train and an apathetic interest in where I was headed, I found myself irresistibly drawn, not toward sleep, but to that place of semi-slumber where reality is blurred just enough to keep one in a constant state of dissatisfaction and unrest. My sole companion in the compartment was a petite young woman with the most angelic face I had ever seen in my life. She had introduced herself as Eileen Craye, prattled on, requiring little to no response, for fully fifteen minutes, and then, as though responding to some predestined time of cessation, folded her coat into a makeshift pillow and curled up on the seat opposite me. Long lashes swept closed over china-blue eyes, and to judge by the way her breathing evened out, with surprising rapidity she succumbed to the world of dreams. I have always found it hard to sleep in strange locations that aren’t my own familiar bed, however, and as much as I longed for sleep, found it difficult to achieve.
Eventually, though, I must have dozed off, for I found myself startled awake. I sat up and looked around the tiny train compartment curiously, wondering what it was that had woken me. All was quiet, and the even breathing of my companion told me she was still asleep. I fished out the small silver pocket watch that I always carried with me, and held it to the window, lifting the retractable shade away from the glass to see if I could make out the time by the cold silver glow of the moonlight.
The watch hands spelled out (figuratively speaking, anyhow) 4:17 in the morning.
I could only suppose we must be nearing our destination, and the conductor had sounded an early whistle, and it had been that which had awoken me. I did not really expect to get any more rest that day; nevertheless, I curled back up on the seat, trying to make myself comfortable, hoping at least to rest my eyes for a little bit longer.
The sharply-spoken word startled me, and I shot bolt upright, staring at Eileen Craye on the seat opposite. It was undoubtedly she who had spoken, yet as I peered at her in the gloom, I realized she was still sleeping soundly. She talked in her sleep, then? I smiled to myself. This could be a rather amusing way of passing time. Silently I willed her to say something else.
She moved in her sleep. “It must be done. You know that. This is important.”
More silence. More stillness. And then,
“How? Poison? You know it must look like an accident.”
An unpleasant thrill shot through me. Poison? Accidents? Was she speaking of murder, then? And had the murder already taken place – was I sitting in a cramped train compartment alone with a murderer? Or was the murder planned for the future – was I sitting in a cramped train compartment alone with a potential murderer? Either way, I didn’t much care for my odds.
“She must die.”
Almost before I realized what I was doing, I had leaned forward and was asking her, in a low, urgent tone, “Who, Eileen? Who must die?”
She stirred restlessly, mumbling something, and for one petrified moment I thought I’d woken her. Then she said, quite clearly,
The words seemed to linger in the air, hovering ominously for a few moments before slowly dissipating letter by letter. I didn’t want to push my luck, and so did not dare to question Eileen further. Instead I leaned back in my seat, curled slightly into the corner, watching her thoughtfully through narrowed eyes. Could Eileen Craye really be a murderer? I had not spoken with her much; the hour of our meeting having been entirely too late to allow for anything other than simple introductions and a few banal trivialities before we each curled up on our respective seats to try for a bit of shut-eye. Nevertheless, my first impression of her had decidedly not been one of murderous cunning, but rather of innocence and a sweet, rather simple-minded person entirely without guile. Of course, one shouldn’t judge people at all, let alone on a five-minute’s acquaintance, but it was hard to reconcile the idea of “murderer” with the slip of a girl who slumbered just across from me.
Which made her the perfect murderer, I supposed, eyeing her across the way. Who would ever suspect her to be capable of such a deed? Not many would – but I could believe her so, with barely a hesitation. I am not morbid, truly I am not, but my job as secretary to the Honorable Justice Charles Witherspoon, a very highly-respected judge, had truly been the means of opening my eyes to the darker side of humanity. I have heard tales to make your blood run cold and break your heart – sometimes at the same time, no less.
The darkness was thinning. I lifted the window shade and peered out at pastoral landscaping. Morning was approaching. The sun was not yet above the horizon, but the sky had lightened to a pale grey-blue, and had the train been silent, no doubt I would hear a cacophony of birds singing their morning songs. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be at my destination. I pulled the shade all the way up, letting the thin morning light stream into the compartment. It was rude, of course, to do so while my traveling companion slept, but to be honest I hoped she would awaken. A bit of surreptitious questioning could not hurt, and might shed some light on the mystery that had been thrown my way.
As though in answer to my thoughts, she stirred, stretching her arms above her head and yawning with childish abandon, her mouth opening so wide I fancied I actually could hear her jaw creak.
“Good morning!” I chirped, a little too brightly, considering the fact that I hadn’t gotten any sleep at all that night. She rubbed her eyes with her fists, and then blinked blearily at me, completely without self-consciousness.
“Are we there yet?”
“It depends on whether or not our destinations are one and the same,” I said, hesitating a second before taking my courage in my hands and plunging on, “I am traveling to spend the month in Whitevale Grange, visiting a friend. It’s not a very large town, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’ve never heard of it.”
I am not accustomed to lying through my teeth, but I fancy I did it rather well, and rather believably, thank you very much. Nary a quiver was in my voice, not a flicker in my expression, nor a tell-tale blush upon my cheeks. To be frank with you, dear reader, I had never heard of Whitevale Grange in my life before that day, or indeed, before five minutes earlier. The locality was scrawled in messy handwriting on a small ticket attached to her valise, and I only hoped I had read it correctly, and was trusting it really was merely a small village.
She opened her eyes very widely. “Oh, but I have! I live there. Well, anyway, I’m going to be living there from now on. My aunt, you see, has – well, the point is, I’m going to live with my aunt.”
“Lady Madeleine Craye?”
I knew the words were a mistake the moment they were out of my lips. Her innocent blue eyes narrowed slightly, or perhaps it just might have seemed so. “That’s right. How did you know?”
“Oh…my friend in town mentioned her once,” I said, my escape route flashing upon me suddenly, with blinding clarity. “Just in passing, you know. It’s only natural, considering they both live in the same town together. And then of course with your last name being Craye, I put two and two together. Despite having been a very poor student in the mathematical department, I am fairly confident that my result shall be four.”
“Yes, and my aunt being the lady of the manor and all,” Eileen said with a slight smile. “She is subject to much town gossip.”
I agreed with her blandly, adding that in small towns, it was sadly true that speculation tended to be the main form of entertainment to be found. I then rose to my feet, and excused myself politely, reaching for my handbag. Hopefully she would think I was headed for the nearest bathroom, when the truth is, I tracked down a conductor as quickly as I could and begged and pleaded to change my ticket to Whitevale Grange. This transaction completed, I returned to the compartment.
“I ran into the conductor,” I told Eileen Craye. “We’ll be arriving in about twenty minutes. Since we are apparently to be neighbors of a sort, perhaps we should spend that time getting to know one another.”
“Certainly,” she agreed with a smile. “You mentioned you were going to stay with a friend – what is her name? Perhaps I know her.”
My gaze faltered. The one question in the world I did not want her to ask, and she did so in all apparent innocence.
“On the other hand,” she went on, “It’s more than likely that I would not know her. I haven’t been to Whitevale Grange in nearly ten years. I wonder if I shall find it much changed?”
The question was obviously rhetorical, but I latched on to it quickly. “I hope not. I mean, I’ve never actually been there, but I like a quiet little town in the countryside, entirely unspoiled by commercialism and tourism. Give me a pastoral country village rather than a bustling metropolis any day! I currently live in London, though I’m originally from a tiny little village in the country, and I just could not wait to get away from the city life.”
She eyed my severely-tailored traveling suit with a speculative eye. “Are you a working girl, Miss Hayes?”
“Oh, please call me Cassie. Yes, I work as a secretary to a judge. It’s an interesting job, not without its merits, but it can be quite demanding and I was so glad to get a break. When my friend’s invitation coincided so perfectly with the judge’s own vacation, it could not have been more perfect. I’m hoping to accomplish a bit of writing while I’m away. You see, I’m an aspiring mystery novelist.”
It felt half ridiculous and three-quarters wonderful to say the words out loud. A novelist. Yes, someday you’ll see my name on the cover of a book: Cassandra Hayes. Also note that mathematics really never were my strong point. Also that I’d just given myself a perfectly legitimate motive for snooping around. Surely mystery novels did a great deal of snooping, and acting out the role of detective.
“How lovely,” she murmured. “And what was your friend’s name again?” She laughed aloud. “Cassie, dear, I’m not quite as ingenuous as I look. You keep avoiding the issue. Do you think I’ll be shocked? I assure you I won’t.”
I blinked at her. “Shocked?”
She gave me a knowing smile. “It’s a man, isn’t it?
I was shocked. “What? No. Of course not.”
“Mr. Jack Daventry, by any chance?” she went on, ignoring my outburst completely.
The name sounded absurdly familiar, but certainly not enough so that a complete stranger should be bandying our names about together.
“I’ve never heard of him before in my life,” I informed her, a trifle superciliously.
Eileen gestured toward the lurid mystery novel I’d left splayed open, face-down on the seat next to me. “Your book gives you the lie,” she said, dimpling. I was confused until I noticed the author’s name in large capitals on the garish dust-cover: JACK DAVENTRY.
“Oh!” I laughed, deciding in that second to play the ingenuous card. Surely I could do it as well as Eileen Craye. The longer I spoke with her the more I was convinced that it was just an act, and nothing more. Beneath her child-like innocence, this girl was hard as nails and sharp as tacks. “I hadn’t the slightest idea that he resided in Whitevale Grange,” I said, allowing my gaze to drop and my expression to become flustered – only a trifle, mind. Mustn’t overdo things.
She regarded me complacently. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Well. Only slightly, I’m afraid. I was invited by Jack, however, only in a purely professional capacity. He is to mentor me in my writing career.”
“Indeed? I shall be watching with the keenest interest.”
I giggled (sounding even more inane than I had originally intended) in an attempt to give the impression of self-consciousness and an eagerness to shift the conversation away from myself. “Really, though, Eileen, we’ve been talking entirely too much about me. What about you?”
She gave a brief lift of her shoulders. “There really isn’t very much to tell. I’ve been a companion to wealthy ladies since I was fourteen – that was nearly ten years ago. It just isn’t fair that I have a rich spinster aunt who lives in a houseful of servants while her only niece is forced to put up with the whims and cruelties of nasty old ladies.” She leaned forward earnestly, her head tilted slightly to the side like a baby bird. “It’s not right, is it? Just because she disapproved of the man my mother married. It isn’t right for some people to have everything and others to have nothing.”
I could easily imagine her as murderer in that moment, with frightening clarity. The dainty, feminine hand slipping the arsenic into the tea, the strychnine in the soup, justifying herself and believing with all her heart that she was genuinely “righting an old wrong.”