Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 1

The Alps. From a train

The name on his passport said "Christopher McCarthy", but he went by the name Chris, so that is what we must call him. He was sitting on a train, a train that was speeding through France. It was on its way south. Or maybe it had gone as far south as it would go and was know moving east. Either way it was in the foothills of the Alps and on its way towards Italy. Chris smiled. He had always wanted to see the Alps from a train. The countryside was as majestic as he had imagined it would be. Little villages huddled against towering mountains clad in green forests that had not yet lost their leaves. The lengthening shadows cast by the setting sun accentuated the beauty of the scene. Chris found himself thinking that the Swiss Alps themselves must be truly incredible if this is what the French foothills looked like.

The steward came and took away his tray - Chris was travelling first class. "Chris was naturally travelling first class", he would have said, if he was writing his own story in the third person. He took the opportunity to order a digestif. He savoured the taste of the cognac as he gazed out the window. His eyes relaxed, no longer actively focussing on the rustic beauty of the landscape racing by. He smiled to himself. All was good.

The scene changed. The train was now in a tunnel. So he could see nothing outside. With no visual cues there was no way of telling how fast the train was moving, yet it seemed to Chris that there was no let up in speed. The journey through the tunnel continued. Time passed. He did not look at his watch, but it seemed as though the train had been in the tunnel for some considerable time. Not as long as the train from London had been under the Channel, but more than no time at all. I am under the Alps, he thought.

And then the tunnel was no more. There were things to see once more, but everything seemed darker, for all the landscape's contrast with the subterranean blackness. Evening was more entrenched now, making for longer shadows and less clear vision of the sights outside the train. And Chris somehow knew that now he was no longer speeding through the countryside of France. The buildings had a slightly different cut to them now, the trees and bushes a sense of subtle variation to what had gone before. But the most obvious indicator was the different flag that flew here from the buildings; no longer the blue, white and red of France, here it was the green, white and red of Italy. How oddly like the flag of his home, Chris thought, smiling to himself at the thought, perhaps the combination of his cognac and the wine he had had with dinner making him think that the random similarity was of great significance.

A woman approached him. A woman wearing a uniform. A relatively young woman wearing a uniform that seemed to fit her attractive figure in a manner that would be rather appealing in most contexts. So Chris thought as his eyes quickly took her in, but the harsh expression on her otherwise attractive face dispelled any uniformed woman fantasies that might otherwise have stayed with him for the rest of the night. She said something to him in a clipped tone. Something in French. Chris was not very good with French. He was not very good with most languages, apart from English, but at this moment it struck him that it was particularly irksome that he was not good with French, considering the amount of time he had put into French classes and that there was now a threatening uniformed woman barking something at him.

"Excusez moi, pouvez vous repeter un fois…?" he mumbled, cursing inwardly as he did so at the complete mess he was making of the Gallic tongue. The woman looked at him like he was an idiot. She said something again, but too quick for him to attempt to parse the words. He smiled at her with a facial expression that begged her to grant some leeway to a man of below average intelligence. She sighed.

"Do you speak English?" she said, in a slightly accented but perfectly clear tone.

"Yes, un peu… I mean yes, I speak English", he replied.

"Good. And you are… Chris McCarthy?" She was looking at a notebook.


"Chris McCarthy, travelling by train to Milan?"

"Yes. At least I think so. This is the train to Milan?"

"Yes. It is. Mr McCarthy, I must ask you to come with me to the guard's car. You must bring your bag. We have had a tip-off and that gives me due cause to search your possessions for drugs."

"What?" Chris was astonished. This was not the kind of situation in which he expected to find himself. Perhaps it was the adrenaline suddenly kicking in, perhaps it was the alcohol, but he was almost stunned by the belligerence of his response. "What is this bullshit? I am sitting here minding my own business and you want to search me for drugs because some prick is telling tales against me?"

The woman seemed taken aback by his vehemence. She recoiled slightly and glanced over her shoulder. A large man in a similar uniform came walking up the carriage, his hand hovering by a holstered truncheon. He looked like the kind of person who would relish an opportunity to use the weapon. Chris saw the other passengers looking terrified now, avoiding eye contact but clearly desperate to see what was happening.

"Please Mr McCarthy, do not make a scene. You must come with me. If you will not come willingly, my colleague…" She let the implied threat trail off.

"Alright", he snapped back, knowing he was beaten but confident also that he had nothing to hide. "Where to?"

"This way", the woman replied, pointing down the carriage. "Follow me".

Chris got up and moved after her, before feeling his shoulders roughly grabbed by the brute, who turned him round before letting go. The monster grunted and by an indication of his head indicated the bag that Chris had thrown onto the overhead luggage rack.

"You're not going to carry it for me?" Chris asked gamely. The brute clicked his tongue and shook his head. Chris muttered something to himself, grabbed the bag and took off after the woman who was waiting at the front of the carriage. The beasts trotted after.

The next carriage was the guard's compartment. An older man in a similar uniform was sitting at a small table here with the guard. As Chris arrived with his captors, the elder said something quickly in French to the guard, who shuffled off towards the first class carriage. His eyes met those of Chris, and it seemed to him that the guard was offering his best wishes and saying that he had had no part in this.

"Are you in charge here?" said Chris to the older man.

"Yes, I am in charge here", he replied, with a thin smile. His English was perfect, with only the slightest trace of an accent.

"Well perhaps you might tell me what this is all about?"

"I was rather hoping you might do that. Don't you think it would be more convenient for everyone if you told us everything?"

"What? I have nothing to tell you. You've dragged me here on the say-so of some tell-tale prick trying to stir trouble… probably that idiot brother in law of mine, this would be just his idea of a hilarious joke, but is that all you need to start persecuting innocent travellers? I can assure you that you will be in very hot water when this is all over. I am not a man to be trifled with!"

Chris was so indignant that he almost said "Don't you know who I am?", which would have been ridiculous as he was not someone that anyone knew. Except that these people seemed to know his name at least.

"And Mr McCarthy, I can assure you that we take very seriously our responsibilities with regard to the smuggling of narcotics. We have received a communication from a most reliable source that suggests to us that you are carrying contraband. We have no choice but to act on this."

"No choice?"

"No choice at all, Mr McCarthy. Now, procedure requires that I must ask you some questions. But first, please take a seat." He indicated the chair vacated by the guard. Chris sat down. The brute and the woman remained standing, despite the other unoccupied seats in the compartment.

"Are you Christopher McCarthy?"


Chris could see the woman writing something in her notebook.

"And you are travelling to Milan?"


The woman wrote something else down. The taping of interrogations had obviously not reached these people.

"And is Milan your final destination?"


"What is your final destination?"

"What's it to you?" snapped Chris, increasingly fed up with all this nonsense.

The older man feigned a look of shock. "Mr McCarthy, please" he said, his voice all mock concern. "I must warn you that disrupting the work of my organisation is a very serious crime. You are required to answer my questions fully and without evasion. So I will ask you once more. What is your final destination?"

"Greece. Athens."

"Why are you going to Athens?"

"Personal reasons." Chris could feel his voice radiating evasiveness now.

"What kind of personal reasons?"

"I am going to see my wife."

The woman seemed to write this especially carefully in her notebook. The brute seemed interested too, for all that Chris suspected that his English was not up to that of his colleagues.

"You are going to see your wife. I see," said the old man. His tone was suspicious. "So is your wife from Greece? Or is she from further east? Some poor unfortunate trafficked into Europe and then sold into some sick approximation to marriage with a pervert like yourself?"

"What?" Chris did not really know what to say to this.

"Well that is what it sounds like to me, Mr McCarthy. Why else would someone be going to Greece to meet a wife?"

"Not meet a wife. Not a wife. My wife. We were married five years ago. In Ireland. She is Irish. Like me."

"Why is your wife in Greece?"

"She works there."

"Works there." The interrogator nodded to the woman, who nodded back and wrote some more in her notebook.

"Yes. She is an economist. She works for the IMF."

Chris hoped that invoking that powerful international organisation might intimidate these goons, but it did not seem to work.

"Ah, the IMF. That must make her very popular there. And you are travelling to meet her?"


"Travelling to meet her by train?"



"What do you mean?"

"Why are you travelling to meet her?"

"What? Because she's my wife."

"But why now, Mr McCarthy?"

"Because… well, alright, because she says she is has met someone else and is leaving me. I want to make her change her mind."

"So your wife tells you she is leaving you, but instead of flying over to see her you set off on an overland journey that must take, what, four or five days?"

"Eh, yes." Chris could appreciate that this sounded a bit odd.

"And you expect me to believe this bullshit?" The interrogator said this quietly, but with an air of such terrifying malevolence that it seemed to Chris that even the woman and the brute were taken aback.

"Well… it's the truth," was all Chris could reply.

"Why didn't you fly over?"

"I don't know… I wanted time to think."

"Please note that down," the interrogator said to the woman. "He wanted time to think." He said this in a manner suggesting that there was something very suspicious about someone claiming that they wanted time to think.

The interrogator stared severely at Chris, who sat uncomfortably for what seemed like an eternity. Then the older man laughed. "Of course, Mr McCarthy," he chuckled, "we know this. Just my joke." He laughed some more. The woman laughed too. So did the brute, though his gutteral guffaws suggested that he did not really understand the joke and was just aping his colleagues. Chris did not understand the joke but he did not feel any need to ape these cockfarmers. He did not laugh.

"And now back to business," said the older man, severe once more. "This bag - is this your bag?"


"Did you pack it yourself?"


"So, it is your bag and you packed it yourself?"


"I see." He nodded at the woman, who scribbled frantically in her notebook. "So I suppose you would have no objection to our searching your bag?"

"Well I do have an objection, but I am not really in a position to stop you, am I?"

"Please record that Mr McCarthy has no objection," he said to the woman, who nodded and appeared to make a single mark in the notebook. The older man then said something in French to the brute, who grunted a reply before donning a pair of rubber gloves. He then ripped open Chris' bag and began to roughly pull out the contents with a gusto that contrasted with the careful manner Chris had stuffed everything in before leaving home.

And then the brute grunted, the tone of his semi-human vocalisation suggesting a certain satisfaction with his labours. Chris, the interrogator, and the unsmiling woman watched as the thug pulled from the bag a small bag containing a white powder. Chris felt his heartbeat increase to a point where he thought he was going to suffer a cardiac arrest. It was all he could do to not wet himself. This was bad. This was very bad indeed.

"Oh how curious," said the interrogator. "It appears our informant has proved most reliable. Mr McCarthy, it appears you have made a most terrible mistake."


The story continues

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