ADVENTURE THE 59TH: ALL ABOARD
For those unfamiliar with the posting structure of a blog: postings appear in the order they are made by their author, not necessarily in the order that would most benefit an ongoing series such as the one you are about to read. Since the purpose of this blog is to be an ongoing thriller, simply removing the previous chapter to alleviate confusion is not an option – since no one coming to the series after the first chapter had been removed would be able to follow the story line.
Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
For those savvy to the blog world – this disclaimer may seem redundant, and for that no apology is made. This disclaimer is meant to better acquaint new readers in how the entries in this blog will be posted and how best to follow the series from this point on. And now…
Adventure the 59th:
It isn't every day you find yourself accused of a murder you didn't commit. I don't go to the Eiffel in search of Jones because I'm fairly certain he - or what's left of him - is there. I'm also pretty sure whoever used my name for their rendezvous is also waiting somewhere in the shadows for a hasty dispatch.
It's late by the time I return to darling Jess. Under the name Charlie Gwenn I check in to our hotel, then spend a rather sleepless night on the Rue de la Hutchette thinking about what'll happen if Jessica Jones tags Charlie Gwenn as the guy who asked too many questions about her dear ol' dad. The morning papers say it all: "Saut de Mort - L'homme d'affaires local Saute de la Tour Eiffel".
I decide to put as much distance between me and that famed Parisian landmark before breakfast. My only problem seems to be timing. An Icelandic volcano's grounded all European and transcontinental flights. I'm trapped by the cursed outcroppings of a grumbling Mother Nature with too much natural gas.
"It's over, then," Jess' reasons, reading the headlines as we pass an outdoor newspaper vendor.
"It's just begun," I say, a queasy sort of feeling creeping into my stomach.
She raises a curious brow in my direction. I lean in to her as though we're a couple a' newlywed tourists on the prowl for fine art and cheap wine.
"I wasn't there last night," I explain in a muffled sigh, "I didn't kill Franklin Jones!"
This revelation seems to both please and startle darling Jess.
"I don't know," I admit, "Take your pick. You, his crippled daughter, the man in the moon...The problem isn't Jones. It's that his daughter knew I was coming...or that is, someone told her that her dad was meeting an Edward Mars last night at the Eiffel Tower. She's sure to repeat the story to the police."
"At least you're registered as Charlie Gwenn," Jess thinks thing through.
"Yeah," I concur, "But my passport says Mars."
I let Jess check us out of our hotel. The concierge seems a little too keen on my looks, as though he knows me from somewhere. Ah, well - maybe he's just window shopping for a crossover weekend. Or maybe he's read the paper and is doing a bit of creative calculation that doesn't include breakfast a la carte.
Jumping into a taxi out front, Jess and I get off in front of a small open air cafe about six blocks from the Gare Montparnasse, then do the rest of our trek on foot. When we're inside the massive train station Jess has a sudden attack of stomach jitters, probably brought on by that strong black coffee she's been chuggin' all morning.
"Get the tickets," she tells me before making a B-line for the restroom.
Maybe it was the coffee. Or maybe she just doesn't like long line ups. The station is packed to the rafters with weary, rather impatient travelers, most of whom I suspect would have preferred a quick flight to a long passage by rail. I'm interrupted several times by passersby who think nothing of cutting through the lineup en route to their destinations. One, a pasty tailed gutter rat, loosely clinging to her tattoo-covered body pierced twink of a boy toy, practically knocks me and the little Egyptian gent down in front over with their grungy carry on. The Egyptian turns, casually eyeing the couple before shaking his head in disgust and muttering, "Bloody tourists!"
I smile. I know just how he feels, being one myself.
"They tell me some dumb schmuck drove a steam engine through the front of this station at the turn of the last century," he goes on.
"Yep," I reason, "October 1895 or thereabouts. Name was Pellerin or something like it."
I've impressed him. He turns to face me with a glint and a smile.
"Ah, you know the story then," the roly-poly Middle Eastern adds, his eyes suddenly a twinkle, "Nineteen. What crazy person puts a nineteen year old peasant at the controls of the Granville to Paris? I ask you?"
"The brake failed," I suggest.
"The brain before it, my friend," he reasons, tapping his index finger against his temple before extending a hand for a hearty shake. "Fertuk Hassad. Dean of Historical Studies at Cambridge."
"Eddie Mars. You're just a little off campus this morning, aren't you professor?" I say as our ticket lineup advances by one.
"On holiday," Fertuk explains, "Actually, on sabbatical."
"Can't you do both?" I tease.
He grins, knowing that it's the truth. A sabbatical is just a fancy word for a cushy stipend; an academic reason to bugger off on paid leave to parts of the world most hard working public sector employees will never get a chance to see firsthand.
"I am making a study of railway stations across Europe," Fertuk explains, "For a piece I hope to publish sometime next semester. You have studied too, no?"
"Only through the school of hard knocks," I tell him.
"But you know the story," Fertuk reasons, "Not many people do. About Pellerin, I mean."
"Or Marie-Augustine Aguilard," I tack on, "The news gal he flattened under a piece of falling masonry."
"No. I just happen to own Mr. Big's Lean Into It."
We share a laugh. He's alright, the professor. Hardly the stuffy academic you'd normally find passively sequestered with his books behind ivy covered walls, in quiet retreat from the world. No, I'd say Fertuk Hassad is the lively sort - well heeled and well traveled and loving every minute of his 'go anywhere/do everything' lifestyle. Cambridge? That's just a safety net - one that benefits from his travels and expertise. But Fertuk could easily do without them much more than the other way around.
"I thought this was going to be the dull stretch of my journey," Fertuk explains, "But somehow I feel as though you might prove a worthy travelling companion. Where are you going?"
I'm caught off guard by the question. Not so much because I don't want to commit to an answer, but because Jess and I have barely had a moment's notice to work out our plans. North Korea is the truth. How we're going to get there without a plane is what mystifies me.
"Venice," I explain.
After all, that's where the train's going.
"The Orient Express?" Fertuk exclaims, his eyes deliciously glistening as though he's just been the unrequited witness to a cave of wonders, "This is kismet. Truly! I too am going to Venice, by way of Innsbruck and Verona. We shall be travelers together."
I'm nudged from behind by Jess'.
"We shall be travelers three," she corrects Fertuk, reaching in to shake his reluctant hand.
But Fertuk looks as though I've just sold him out to the enemy.
"A thousand apologies," he says to me with a distant disappointment in his tone, "I thought you were traveling alone."
"There's no reason why we can't travel together...is there?" I suggest.
"Besides, I sleep a lot," Jess teases.
"Just very little with me," I add - to set the record straight.
The professor's not terribly convinced of our arrangement, but nods anyway as we move one more step towards the ticket master.
. . .
An hour and a half later, Jess and I move into our close quarters for the trip; a stateroom with two pull down beds and a latrine that I can barely squat on without knocking my knees against the narrow cabin door. Before leaving, the porter informs us of their 24 hour steward service and asks if we would like to lay down for an afternoon nap. I shake my head, but Jess nods and motions for her upper birth to be opened.
"I'm going to the dining car," I tell her as she takes the clip out and lets her long tresses tumble around her neck and shoulders.
. . .
As the train begins to glide smoothly out of the station I find Fertuk seated at a table inside the dining car, studiously immersed in a very thick book on Greek history. My eye catches his and, noticing that I am alone, he enthusiastically motions for me to join him. After I've made myself comfortable and ordered a tall glass of beer, we get down to more practical discussion.
"You don't approve of my choice of travelling companion," I begin.
Fertuk is sheepish with apprehension.
"I have not said I do not approve," he suggests.
"But you don't."
"It's just that I thought we might explore the stations together," he admits, "You see, I am a lonely scholar...and not terribly popular with ladies. I suppose my mother had something to do with that. She always insisted that I accept no less than a woman of pedigree and culture."
"Hmmm," I tease, "Pedigree's a birthright. You either are or you're not. But culture? You have to look long and hard for one of those...and not on the isle of Manhattan. Nothing but oversexed debutantes and prissy princesses there."
Fertuk shakes his head with heavy disappointment.
"Nor in Istanbul, Stockholm or Sidney..." he tells me, "I should know. I have lived in all three."
"Were you ever in America?" I inquire.
"American women," he tells me with a mild note of disgust, "You can't teach them anything they don't already know. They audit my class and tell me what I should be teaching."
"And English girls?"
"They simply don't care..." Fertuk hypothesizes, "...so long as the boy next to them is cute."
We spend the next hour or so chatting over drinks. About every twenty minutes our waiter comes by with two more of the same without even being asked. I'll say one thing; the service is top notch.
"Tonight we stop for fifty minutes in Innsbruck," Fertuk explains, "It would give me great pleasure if you and your lady friend would join me for dinner at the Cafe Gritsch."
I see no reason to say no, so I say yes for the two of us.
"Say, didn't the Romans once have an army outpost there?" I ask, knowing full well that they did.
Hmph!" Fertuk grunts with great emphasis, "Romans! Where are they now?"
"Back in Rome where they belong," I suggest with a toast of my glass.
. . .
I return to the cabin Jess and I are sharing at a quarter to five. She's still out and snoring like a sailor I once bunked under at a sweat hole in Korea. The gal's got lungs - I'll give her that; and a clogged nasal cavity that could stir ships from the fog. I decide to freshen up a bit before waking her.
"Go away," she mutters in her sleep.
"Wish I could, angel," I whisper back before going into the loo and closing the door.
Twenty long and silent minutes pass.
. . .
The only time I know for sure that our train's in motion is either when we start moving or pull in to our next stop. As we pull into Innsbruck station, our usually sturdy car goes through a curious series of shuffling - like a drunkard walking wide-stride back and forth from one spread foot to the next.
"I don't see why we have to indulge that the funny little man," Jess tells me as she tosses back her long blond tresses for effect.
"Well, I like him," I say, "He's the first okay guy I've met in a while. I forgot they grew that way. What's more, he's buying. Free food's always a plus."
Jess doesn't buy my reasoning. She doesn't buy a lot. I think deep down she's probably as nervous as a stray trapped in an alley outside a cheap Chinese restaurant. Being a skeptic helps keep her edge.
"You could buy him, the restaurant and probably the whole damn town and still have enough to launch a full scale assault on Switzerland," Jess reasons.
I watch as she adjusts her bra in the mirror for maximum squeeze.
"For someone disinterested in the hired help, you sure know how to dress for the occasion," I suggest.
"I dress for me," Jess informs, "I undress for real men."
"Which probably explains why I've never seen you naked," I tease.
What comes next is totally unexpected.
"You wanna see me naked?" she says, her voice suddenly dropping a few octaves; curiously infused with a sultry hush.
Before I know it she's on top of me, pressing into the wall, her hands reaching behind mine, her lips pressed against my cheek, then chin so that I can feel her hot breath tickling my nose and teeth.
"It wouldn't take much," she tells me, her wet kisses sliding all over my face.
I don't buy her act for a moment.
"When did all this happen?"
I make my inquiries during the few brief seconds between those long, hard kisses.
"When did what happen?"
"You," I reason, "Flossing my gums without your tongue. I thought you wanted everything strictly professional?"
"Professionalism's overrated," Jess decides, sliding one hand down my inner thigh to my crotch, "Besides. Isn't everything on the up and up?"
"I don't know," I say, coiling my neck to bury my face in her hair, "You tell me."
"Alright, I will," Jess says.
I feel her slender fingers loosen my belt and unzip my fly. The train may have come to a complete stop but the ride has only just begun.
. . .
Twenty-four minutes later we're hurrying down the platform toward the Cafe Gritsch. By now the sun's begun to set behind the mountains, casting long dark shadows through the gas lit streets and transforming Innsbruck into a Tyrolean fairyland with bustling tourist foot traffic scattered all about.
As we round the corner of a tight cobblestone thoroughfare, I catch a brief glimpse at our rumpled selves in the reflective surface of a store front window showcasing children's marionettes.
"Hey," I reason to Jess, spotting the cafe just around the corner and pulling her aside for a moment, "Fix your hair. Let me fix mine."
"Because we look like a pair of pre-teen imbeciles who just had sex."
"We just did," Jess replies.
"But we've graduated," I insist.
I run a set of fingers through my thick mane before reaching for the comb in my back pocket.
"That's fitting," Jess tells me, nodding in the direction of the marionettes, "Like puppets on a string."
"Yeah," I admit, "Only who's pulling on whose strings?"
I study her expression as she preens a bit. There's no spark of excitement about her, unlike the flush and afterglow coursing through my veins at breakneck speed that I'm certain everyone can notice from a mile away. But looking at her we might just as well have been playing Tiddlywinks in the club car.
"Give your head a shake," Jess tells me, "Or do you want me to come over there and do it for you?"
"Not in public," I reason.
"Ready?" she asks.
"I'm up for anything," I smugly reply.
Only I don't even get a half smile in return.
. . .
Inside the Cafe Gritsch, Fertuk is seated at a rather lonely table for four with three empty chairs. He perks up at the first sight of us, rising to hold a chair for Jess as we sit down.
"I was afraid you were lost," Fertuk says.
"Only in Wonderland! Not canceled," I relate, "But delayed."
"Nothing serious, I hope," Fertuk reasons, glancing over at Jess, who has suddenly been distracted by a rather youngish Adam Lambert knock off pressed up against the bar.
"Apparently not," I say, "Have you ordered?"
"Only drinks," Fertuk admits, "What would you like for dinner?"
The menus arrive - pricey, to say the least. I decide that when the opportunity presents itself I'm going to suggest we go Dutch on the meal. It's the least I can do.
A waiter arrives with two beers and a cocktail.
"What's that?" Jess coolly asks Fertuk as the waiter begins to extend the cocktail to her.
"A Cosmopolitan for the lady," the waiter suggests.
"Whiskey," Jess corrects, "Ginger ale on the side. In case I feel like celebrating."
The waiter leaves the two beers before disappearing behind the bar to fill Jess's request.
"I trust you took some photos before arriving here tonight," I say to Fertuk.
He seems confused and that leaves me unsettled.
"Of the station..." I add, waiting for his response, "For your research."
Fertuk smiles - hardly nervous, but evasively nonetheless.
"I have all the research that's required to complete my work," he tells me.
We chat - politely; about the weather, the Euro and European politics in general and why I seem to be missing a button off my collar. I don't tell Fertuk that Jess was a little too frantic to get me out of my shirt back on the train and even make the suggestion that perhaps I should point out the absence to my valet once we've arrived home. That is, of course, if I had a valet.
Jess takes her vodka straight up. The food arrives on cue with all the trimmings. After our afternoon gymnastics I'm hungry as hell, plowing into my steak like a starving super model who just discovered her next gig is a Burger King. I don't even think to glance over and see how Jess is managing with her chicken salad. Only Jess suddenly doesn't look so hot.
"You alright?" I ask.
She nods that she is but I can tell that she's not. A moment later she's excusing herself for the ladies room.
"Not a good traveler," Fertuk suggests.
"Mmmm," I mutter, my mouth full of tender beef.
The Lambert lookalike Jess had taken an interest in earlier is working the room for a friend; a boy about twenty-two whom he finds easily enough at the end of the bar. They lazily eye one another for a moment or two before heading off to the bathroom together. Toujour l'amour.
"How is your steak, my friend," Fertuk inquires.
"Superb," I admit, "How is your swordfish?"
"A little tough," Fertuk admits, pausing a few long moments before nodding in the direction of the bathrooms and slowly adding, "Tell me...are you married to...?"
"No," I reply, "She's my...secretary."
Jess would castrate me if she heard that.
"Are you?" I inquire, "Married I mean?"
"Yes," Fertuk admits, pausing this time for effect before adding, "...to my work. But seriously...look at me. Who would want this when there are so many better options available?"
"Don't sell yourself short," I suggest, "Some women get excited by intelligence."
"School girls," Fertuk tells me, a wickedly thin smile curling up his cheeks, "Or ugly librarians looking to better to their standing by marrying a professor. No, my friend. I shall never marry. My standards are too high and the women I would prefer could not stand to see me without my clothes on."
I suddenly realize Jess has been in the bathroom for a long time. Glancing at my watch I acknowledge that our train will pull out of the station in less than ten minutes.
"Well, so much for dessert," I reason.
Fertuk agrees, motioning to a nearby waiter for our check.
"Would you mind going into the ladies bathroom to see what's become of my friend?" I ask the waiter.
"I am not permitted, sir," he politely replies, "But I will send one of the kitchen staff in to make inquiries."
Several long minutes pass. I sit quietly and let Fertuk finish his fish. Reaching for the check as it comes to the table, Fertuk casually knocks my hand aside, the waiter leaning in to pass him the check instead before turning to give me a slip of white paper from the bar.
I open the paper to find a sloppily scribbled note: 'gone back to the train. See you there.'
"Something the matter?"
"No," I mutter, "Just another one of my secretary's surprises. She's full of them this evening."
Fertuk reaches into his wallet for his credit card.
"Please, let me at least pay for our share," I suggest.
"Not tonight," says Fertuk, "But I know a very smart trattoria in Verona where you may wish to settle the tab."
Yep, well heeled and well traveled.
"I'll look forward to that," I say.
We hurry back to the train, my wider strides leaving Fertuk slightly puffing to keep up. Normally I'd scale back, but I'm somehow anxious to find out what's ailing Jess.
We board the Orient Express just as the first peel of the conductor's whistle echoes through the cavernous station. I thank Fertuk once more for his hospitality, then depart his company down the long narrow corridor to my compartment. Only Jess isn't there. In fact, she isn't in the club car or any place else that I can discover. I feel the earth move beneath me as the train slowly pulls out of Innsbruck.
"Excuse me," I ask the conductor as he passes, "The lady who boarded with me in Paris...you remember. Blonde hair. Tall. Have you seen her?"
"Not since you left the train together earlier this evening," the conductor admits.
Where the hell could she be? I check the lounge in the rear and then make a brisk walk up through all eight cabin cars. I'm tempted to start knocking on individual doors when a note arrives from the porter - this one written more neatly than the one I received back at the cafe.
'Gone ahead. Will see you in Verona. Jess.'
Gone ahead? How? With who? This can't be right. We must go back. Only, we can't. I can't take that chance. I have to stick to our original timeline. By the time I reason that Jess probably isn't on the train we've left Innsbruck a distant memory in a darkening cloud of gathering dust.
Possibly for some...
But Eddie Mars will return in his next big adventure on June 15th, 2010.
@Nick Zegarac 2010 (all rights reserved).