If the train ride from to Paris to Troyes had been uncomfortable before, it was unbearable now - thanks in no small part to the tension added by the presence of the young soldier. In order to accommodate Pierre in the small room, and also as punishment for nearly allowing Patrice to escape, Claude had to rejoin his companions in their reserved passenger car further up the train. The man had been surprisingly enthusiastic about the demotion.
The room now contained Pierre, Patrice, Georges, and Henri himself, who made no effort to hide his displeasure at the sudden change to his travel plans. Despite this, he managed to keep his thoughts to himself. A frosty silence has descended upon the cabin, which was just as well for Patrice, as her own thoughts had yet to extend beyond ‘What now?’
She had given up her best - and possibly only - chance of eluding her uncle. The action had not been without purpose, but the solace that provided was tempered by the fact that yet another person had been ensnared in her mess of a life. She found herself stealing the occasional glance over at the uniformed young man sharing her seat. He was not unattractive; given different circumstances, a little flirtation would not have been out of the question ... Patrice shook the thought from her head; romance was most certainly not going to improve matters; at best it would be a waste of time better spent devising a plan of escape.
Patrice reviewed the facts of her current situation: She was on the last car of a moving train, personally guarded by her uncle and one of his hired men; Wendell and Mr. Baine sat oblivious to her presence on the first car; between them was a car full of Henri’s thugs, whose very presence was to help him capture - and kill, in all probability - the two men.
Despite the presence of the solider, she could not seem to factor him into the equation. He was an anomaly, a random element that Patrice suddenly realized she was thinking around. She wondered if her uncle were having similar thoughts about the man as he sat and plotted.
An hour after their departure from Troyes, the ice finally broke.
“Where are your parents?” The question, indeed, the sound of a voice at all, come so unexpectedly that the remaining three occupants of the cabin found themselves starting uncomprehendingly at an increasingly red Pierre.
Patrice’s mind finally processed the question and realized it was she who had been addressed. “My mother is back in Paris with my aunt. My father died in the war when I was little.”
“I'm sorry to hear it.” said Pierre, who then turned to Henri, “Did you serve in the war, monsieur?”
“Briefly.” Henri sniffed.
“Were you there when Paris fell?”
“I happened to be deployed elsewhere at the time.” said Henri, looking out the window.
“I see.” said Pierre. Henri turned to regard the young man; Patrice noted that his eyes narrowed the slightest bit. He took a breath, but Patrice jumped in before her uncle could reply.
“What led you to join the Gendarmerie Nationale?”
Pierre’s ears flushed crimson. “You will think me a fool …” (this prompted a snort from Henri, which he either missed or graciously ignored) “but I grew up hearing women speak of their fondness for the uniformed men … ” Patrice smiled, despite herself. The soldier continued, “In all seriousness, living so close to the border - on the heels of a war, no less - I grew up on the stories of soldiers and being told the importance of a strong military. Enlisting was a natural progression. Only, these days it's not Prussians we're on guard against, but the undead.”
Patrice hesitated before she asked her next question, but decided that it needed to be asked, “Have you encountered any? Vampires, I mean.”
Henri and even Georges, who had been doing his best to appear interested in a book he found somewhere, looked to see what the soldier’s reaction would be. To his credit, Pierre seemed to be perfectly comfortable discussing the matter. “Just once, on a rural patrol. Wretched thing. Putting it down was an act of mercy, though I cannot claim to have delivered the fatal blow. Like most of France’s troubles of late, they seem to have come from the east. Unfortunately, they are not yet considered enough of a threat that the gendarmerie will dedicate the resources needed to eradicating them. Why do you ask?”
“My cousin was killed by a vampire.” The reply escaped her lips before Patrice could give any thought to how her uncle would react.
“NO!” Henri erupted, “Those men you brought into my house killed my daughter! Do not lie to this man to assuage your conscience.” Had the tiny room not been so cramped, he might have stood. As it was, her uncle contended himself with leaning forward to thrust an accusatory finger at his niece.
“How can something that is dead be killed?” Patrice sat forward herself. Perhaps if she could convince him of Camille’s death earlier that cursed evening, then he would call off his blind quest for revenge.
“Because they are not dead - they are infected, you foolish girl! If they were truly dead, then they would not need blood to sustain themselves, would they? Dead things do not eat, they are dead! There are many prominent thinkers who say that the affliction can be cured, especially if the infection was recent.”
Patrice tried to alter her uncle’s momentum, “So you admit that Camille had been turned?”
“I admit that whether she was a vampire or not, those villains had no right to kill her - in my own house, no less! Ignoring everything else, the fact remains, Patrice, that you brought it all to my door!”
“Are you angry because you lost your daughter, or because something unpleasant has occurred in your house?” Patrice said, throwing herself back in her seat and crossing her arms. She knew her uncle despised a particular affectation she sometimes used when she was being belligerent - a tone of voice combined with a shaking of her head - and she made sure to use it now, “You're not angry, nor are you sad - you fear a scandal. The neighbors’ gossip is what you fear.”
Henri was apoplectic. “You insolent little … !” he moved to strike her. Suddenly, Pierre was standing between them, preventing the blow. Henri sputtered; Georges sat up, but made no move against the solider.
“That is enough,” despite the situation, the young man was remarkably composed and maintained a calm - but firm - tone, as he leveled his gaze at the businessman, “I have been tasked with this girl’s safety. You may not strike her. Remember, sir, that I am under orders to give a report of this journey to my commanding officer. I don't think he will react kindly to more evidence of your tendency towards striking young women.”
“I .. I …” Henri was off-balance and floundered. He finally decided to shut his mouth and sat chewing the inside of his cheek for a moment. Pierre remained where he was, ready to weigh the response to come. When Henri next spoke, his voice was in that carefully even tone that always made Patrice uneasy, “I apologize. Clearly, the recent loss of my daughter is causing me no end of torment. I have allowed this girl to manipulate me.” He produced a heavy sigh. “With your permission, I would like to step out to the rear platform. I think the fresh air would help me regain my composure.“
Pierre sat down, allowing Henri room to move, “I think that is an excellent idea.”
Henri stood and made his way to the door. Just before he stepped out of the room, he turned to Pierre and said, “I wonder if you would be willing to join me, perhaps for a smoke? Some polite conversation would be most welcome.”
“I'll go with you, boss,” said Georges, moving to join Henri.
“No,” said Henri, “I asked Pierre to join me.” Georges looked somewhat crestfallen, as he sat back in his seat.
Pierre turned to Patrice. “Are you okay with this?”
Patrice shrugged and nodded, “I will be fine.”
The soldier stood and followed Henri out the door, heading for the rear of the train. Patrice glanced over at Georges, who was wearing a frown.
“Why do you work for him?” she said.
Georges shrugged, “Need the money.”
“But, he is so mean.”
“Guys like me don't have a lot of options when it comes to work. A mean boss that pays well is better than a good boss who don't - or no boss at all.”
“No disrespect, mademoiselle, but you don't see. Not at all.” It was clear that Georges did not want to pursue the discussion further.
Several minutes of awkward silence passed before the sudden opening of the door startled them both. Her uncle, his hair in disarray, stepped in and picked up the bag of Pierre’s belongings and disappearing again. A brief moment later, he returned. Alone and in high spirits.
“Where is Pierre?” A sick, cold feeling began to percolate in Patrice’s stomach.
“After discussing the matter, Pierre has decided to part ways with us.” Henri said, straightening his hair.
“You … paid him to leave?”
“I didn't have to.” Henri tried and failed to suppress a wicked smile.
“But … his report!” Patrice could not believe, according to the evidence available, had just transpired.
Henri nodded gravely, then brightened as he said, “I have graciously offered to submit the report on his behalf.”
Patrice felt on the verge of tears when a knock at the door suddenly drew the attention of everyone in the room. The tension became palpable as Henri nodded to Georges, who, after a moment’s hesitation, stood and opened the door to find the conductor standing before him. Then tension became even more unbearable as he looked around Georges, then said, “I was given to believe that there were four passengers in this cabin?”
“There were, but our companion decided to get off in Troyes. Not a fan of trains, it seems.” said Henri.
“Ah, well. I just wanted to let you know that lunch has been prepared in the dining car.”
“Excellent. Thank you.” said Henri. With that, the man moved to the next door to repeat the procedure.
“Well,” said Henri, glancing around “Are either of you as hungry as I?”