The monotonous drone of the train as it shook and rattled its way down the track was unexpectedly relaxing. Since none of the three other passengers crammed into the small sleeping car - hard-faced men of varying age and social standing - were inclined to interact beyond hostile stares and surreptitious glances, Patrice found herself drifting in and out of sleep.
During one period of wakefulness, she contemplated the flint-edged scowl that seemed to be etched permanently into the face of her uncle as he sat across from her, regarding the landscape as it spun continuously past the one large window of the sleeping cabin he had purchased for the two of them. The two men he had selected to join them in the cabin, Georges and Claude, sat in bored silence.
Henri had been serious about not letting Patrice out of his sight. They had been sitting in the small room since the train left Paris that morning and, as best she could figure, they would be sharing the cabin as the train traveled through the night - propriety be damned.
Still, she would have a bed. The rest of Henri’s men were occupying a single passenger car, purchased for their exclusive use for the duration of the trip. As far as she could tell, not all of them were aware of their true destination.
“Troyes is not more than a day away by train,” she said, as he purchased their tickets earlier that morning, "Why did you get a cabin?"
“The train will stop in Troyes to fill up on water and coal,” he sniffed, “We will search the station and surrounding area during the stop, as it is likely they'll try to board the train - assuming they have not already boarded one. If we do not find them, we shall continue to Munich and capture them there.” His words were delivered with a barb of irritation, as if he were annoyed at having to explain something so obvious to the girl.
It was a tone that Patrice was all too familiar with. So much so that she had nearly become deaf to it, not unlike a person living along the banks of a rushing albeit ill-tempered river. The intonation simply held no meaning for her anymore. Her two ‘bodyguards,’ hired hands Henri referred to as Georges and Claude, began to nod as if they had been thinking along the same lines the whole time.
As Henri stalked over to the train, Patrice heard one of the men flanking her whisper, “Munich? I thought they were fleeing to Troyes.”
"Best not to question the boss,” said the other.
Patrice could not help but roll her eyes in quiet exasperation. This was a large part of the reason her uncle was now the unbearable, self-absorbed creature he had become - no one was ever willing to challenge him, let alone question a decision he made. He was rich, that was true, but the people he surrounded himself with assumed that because he was rich, he must also be right. Whenever that ‘rightness’ was brought into question, Henri often reacted loudly and, under certain circumstances, violently.Patrice resisted the urge to rub her eye; the extra make-up needed to hide the bruise was making her itch.
I am going to run away.
The thought came to her suddenly as her mind returned to the here and now. She had daydreamed about running away before, certainly, but there was something different about this feeling. There was a finality to it, a sense of resolve that would not - could not - be denied. It was not merely an idea that had occurred to her, or a suggestion; this was a decision already made making itself known.
Patrice weighed her options. Hiding on the train was out of the question, as Henri would simply have his men search each car. The thought of jumping from a moving train was briefly entertained, but a quick glance out the window convinced her that doing so would not only be foolish, but potentially fatal. The train station, then. If the restroom there included a window, she could try climbing out while they waited by the door, though that would likely draw more attention to her than she wanted.
Perhaps, she could try simply blending in the with crowd while they searched for Wendell and Mr. Baine. It occurred to her that if, by some unlikely coincidence, the two men were spotted in Troyes, the ensuing chaos and excitement could be exactly what she needed to escape.
The thought led Patrice into a moment of conflict; could she really hope for their capture if it meant her freedom? She felt like she knew what the correct answer to that question was supposed to be, but could not honestly say she believed it. As the two sides of this invisible conflict vied for control of both her heart and her mind, she glanced over at her uncle. Their eyes met for only the briefest of moments before he once again looked away. The was no love, no hint of compassion in Henri’s venomous gaze; selfish contempt and cruelty were all the man knew.
Within her, the momentum of battle shifted.
The ticket seller peered down at the small pile of money on his counter. Using a pencil, he gingerly nudged some of it aside to make sure he had not missed any. Satisfied that everything had been counted, he glanced over at one of several papers posted nearby. Across the counter, two men - one of them oddly dressed - studied a map of the various rail lines running through the north-central region of France as he silently ran the calculation in his head. He could already tell that the shorter of the two, a plain-looking man in a bowler, would be unhappy with the answer.
“Belfort,” he said at last, drawing their attention.
“Belfort?” The men glanced back over at the map, uncertain of just where to look. The bowling hat man made a face, “No further?”
“Non. I am sorry, but this is what you can afford.”
The bowling hat man sighed heavily and looked at his taller companion, who shrugged and said, “We have little choice.”
“Fine.” said Mr. Baine, nodding at the ticket seller, who slid the money into his palm and began making change. A moment later, he handed back a pair of tickets and a few small coins.
“The train will be here in ten minutes,” the seller said, glancing up at a large clock prominently displayed in the station’s waiting area. “It will be departing an hour later, please make sure you are aboard.”
“An hour? Why the delay?”
“We are the last station between here and Munich capable of refilling the steam engine. A few of the other towns along the way can offer coal or water, but not both. It is more efficient to fill up here.”
“Thank you,” said Wendell. As they turned away from the desk to meander around the station, he said to Mr. Baine, “At least we do not have to worry about missing the train.”
Mr. Baine made a dismissive noise, “I would rather not be loitering in one place so long; not until we've cleared the shadow of Paris, perhaps even the country itself.”
“There are a few shops and vendors around the station, why not take in some of the local flavor until the train arrives?”
Mr. Baine jingled the few remaining coins in his palm, “I fear we'll have to content ourselves with merely taking in the local aroma,” he said. Wendell sensed a melancholy undertone in his companion’s words.
“Do not worry, my friend,” he said, “Something is bound to turn up - perhaps when we least expect it.”
“For us, the unexpected is also often rather unpleasant.” Mr. Baine looked at his ticket and groaned, “Not the first car.”
“What is wrong with the first car?”
“It's right behind the coal hopper, with smoke and steam billowing back from the engine. It smells, the scenery will be obscured and ...” Mr. Baine looked around before continuing in a somewhat lower tone, “Everyone knows the first car is where the poor ride.”
Wendell shrugged, “We are poor. Besides, some of the best people I know have little or nothing to their name. This could be good for you.”
Mr. Baine rolled his eyes. “Let's board as soon as we can, at least. If nothing else, I would like to get my pick of the seats before it fills up.”
“Or before anyone sees you enter the dreaded ‘first car?’ ”
“I'd rather no one saw us get on this train,” said Mr. Baine, “You never know who is watching.”
A shiver, accompanied by a gentle lurch, emanated back from the engine, causing each car to clack their couplers against those ahead of them, like the popping of a giant metallic spine.
“We are slowing. Troyes must be near.”
The words brought Patrice out of her sullen reverie. The time to act was fast approaching, and she was uncertain of her chances. How would Henri react if she failed to escape? Would anyone at the station - in all of Troyes - be sympathetic to her plight?
Buildings began to fill the landscape outside their window. They would be pulling into the station shortly. Another moment passed and thick white steam began to obscure their view as the engine began to bleed off the excess and apply the brake.
As they began to see aspects of the station around them, Patrice realized with a sinking feeling that they were on the opposite side of the car from the platform onto which they would exit; she had no way of scanning the crowd awaiting the train for Wendell and Mr. Baine. It was a small comfort that Henri would be similarly disadvantaged. Perhaps if she could somehow manage to exit the car first …
The deceleration continued and, Patrice would have sworn, that the passage of time was slowing along with the train; the last few minutes before they pulled into the station made the seconds feel like minutes, minutes like hours. With a final jolt, the train stopped. Billowing clouds of steam belched forth from the hissing engine, drifting the length of the platform.
“Where do you think you are going?” said Henri, as Patrice stood and turned towards the door. Claude and Georges jumped to their feet, one to stand in front of the door, the other behind her. Neither man moved to actually grab her, though.
“To stretch my legs, we have been on this train for hours.” she said.
“And let you run off to cause more trouble? I think not.”
“Am I allowed to use the facilities, at least? Or would you rather we turn this room into a pigsty and wallow in our own filth?” Patrice was surprised at how quickly the anger she felt towards her uncle could flare up.
Outside the door, they could hear the muted knocking and clomping of people filling the central corridor of the car, lining up to exit the train.
Suddenly, there was a hesitant knock at their door. A man’s voice on the other side said, “Boss? The men are ready to start searching.” Claude and Georges turned and joined Patrice in looking at her uncle. She imagined that they were looking forward to getting out of the stuffy cubicle and getting some fresh air themselves.
Lips pursed tightly, her uncle sucked at his cheek and his jaw seemed to roll slightly. Patrice recognized that he was chewing on the inside of his mouth in that annoying manner of his that manifested whenever he was compelled to make a decision sooner than he was comfortable with.
After a moment, which may as well have been an hour, Henri snorted and said, “Fine,” and to each of the men flanking Patrice turned a piercing stare in turn, “But keep her close.” He did not have to add ‘or else.’
They opened the door and made their way out into the cramped hallway. Henri’s men had moved back through the train to the last car and were now crowding the space, waiting for their employer’s instructions, lest they incur his displeasure by presuming incorrectly. The remaining passengers who had not gotten off the train before their arrival were attempting to squeeze out of their rooms and down the hallway past the clot of men who clearly did not belong there.
A handsome couple, followed by another group of well-dressed women were making their way past the door. Upon seeing Patrice, the man stopped to let the young woman and one of her escorts out into the hallway before them. Once she was past, he continued moving forward. Georges was momentarily trapped in the room with her uncle as the trailing group of women followed them off the train. Patrice's heart leapt within her - even a few short feet between her and Heri was enough to lift her spirits and encourage the thought that escape was possible.
“The facilities should be along the wall,” she said to Claude, who had been let out before her, “Do you see them?” The man attempted to peer through the thick clouds of steam to the far side of the platform. As he did so, Patrice scanned the crowd milling about the cars further up the train. It was nearly impossible to make anyone out, certainly not in any great detail.
The steam parted briefly as the locomotive huffed out its final reserve and Patrice happened to catch a flash of distinctive orange fabric peeking out from under a dated traveling cloak in the crowd milling about the lead cars of the train, waiting for the passengers to disembark. Her eyes did their best to avoid going wide, though her stomach had no compunction about dropping into free-fall. They were here. The perfect opportunity to escape had just presented itself on a silver platter.
The women exiting the train behind Patrice had nearly finished filing off the train. Behind them, Henri and Georges were pressing forward as closely as was socially acceptable. If time had slowed to a crawl before, its pace was now positively glacial. She took a second look towards the front of the train, the crowd of people was still there, still waiting - completely oblivious to what might be happening on the opposite end of the platform.
Patrice took a deep breath of the moist, oily-tasting air ... and ran in the opposite direction.