"You are in very serious trouble, Mr McCarthy," the interrogator said. Chris looked from his unsmiling face, to the similarly severe visage of the woman and on to the brute, who leered triumphantly as he held up the package whose contents were only too obvious to them all. "In France we take our obligations to combat the smuggling of narcotics very seriously. You will find that the penalties imposed by the courts are most severe."
"I see you are an expert on geography," replied the interrogator. "But this train originated in France, so we have jurisdiction here. I think you will find the French judiciary most severe in their dealings with you."
"But this is ridiculous… that stuff is not mine."
"Mr McCarthy, you said this was your bag. Did he not?" The question was addressed to the woman, who flicked back a couple of pages in the notebook, read something and then nodded. "And you packed the bag yourself? Isn't that what he said?" The woman nodded again.
"I did say that," said Chris. "But someone must have planted it in my bag. I don't know, when I was in the bathroom or something."
"Ah yes, these generous figures in the drug trade who are always dropping valuable packets of narcotics into the bags of random strangers. It is strange how these phantoms always seem to be responsible for the drugs found in the bags of the drug smuggling scum who fill our prisons. Our judges are wise to this kind of bullshit, Mr McCarthy. You would be wise not to waste their time with it."
Chris did not know what to say. He was in trouble and he knew it, but this all seemed so strange a disruption of his normal life that he still hoped it would just go away, leaving him to continue his journey as planned. But then he remembered something from the various crime dramas he had seen over the years.
"Wait a minute! You haven't read me my rights! This is most irregular. I want to speak to a lawyer."
"You want to speak to a lawyer. Well you can talk to me. I have studied the law."
"No, I mean I want legal advice from my lawyer."
"That will not be possible."
"What do you mean it won't be possible? I have rights. You know, under the European convention and stuff. And I am an Irish citizen. Don't people have rights in your country as well?"
The interrogator smiled. "Those rights are in abeyance here, Mr McCarthy. We are in what lawyers like to call an interstitial zone, a conceptual borderland where those everyday rights do not apply in the same way. When you are processed into the French prison system you can start shouting about lawyers and due process and the like, but here… I'm afraid not. We have the rights here, Mr McCarthy. Not you."
The bare statement chilled Chris. He sat back and said nothing. The interrogator filled the silence.
"Let me be clear, Mr McCarthy. You are in a very serious situation. In France the penalties for the smuggling of narcotics are very severe. We take our duties seriously in this regard, and our judiciary is keen to prevent these vile products issuing from our country to the rest of Europe. You can be sure that any French court will treat your case with no leniency. There will be no credence given to your claims of having this packet planted on you. Attempting to advance such nonsense will only lead to your receiving a lengthened sentence. And your sentence will already be long, that is one thing I can guarantee. Not merely will the judge hand down a severe punishment for your transporting of this filth, but your status as a foreign national comes into play here as well. In the current political climate… well I think it quite certain that you will be spending a long time inside our prison system.
"We like to think of our prison regime as tough but fair. But it can be hard on foreigners, particularly foreigners like yourself who do not speak much French. And while the regime might be tough but fair, the other prisoners are not. As a drug smuggler, Mr McCarthy, you will be in among the most violent and disturbed prisoners held in our country's jails. We like to think of our prison regime as tough but fair, but in truth, we do not care too much what one prisoner does to another. If the thugs take a dislike to some foreign bastard and beat him to death - well, it reduces our expenses, does it not?
"And then you must remember that some of these men will have been in jail for quite some time and know that they are not going to be released in the immediate future. Our prison regime is tough but fair, but it does not allow for such fripperies as conjugal visits. So these fellows will have spent many years without the civilising influence of the fairer sex. In such situations, well, as you can imagine, they adjust to the circumstances available. And Mr McCarthy, I know it is something of a cliché to talk about such things among prisoners, but it is the simple truth. These men are the kind of people who prey upon the weak and take what they want from them. In the absence of female company, they make their adjustments, and they do so in a most forcible manner."
He paused then, letting his words hang in the air. He looked knowingly at Chris, an eyebrow raised, seemingly secure in his knowledge that most men fear nothing more than anal rape. Chris shivered. In this regard he was like most men. Amidst his fear he heard the brute behind him chuckling. So he understood English after all. Or he was so used to this part of the interrogations that without understanding the words he could tell what was happening.
"But it does not have to be like that," the interrogator said, after a long pause. He smiled at Chris, who realised that some kind of offer was about to be made.
"What do you mean?"
"I think perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement that will allow you to avoid all this unpleasantness."
"What kind of arrangement?"
"I think perhaps you will be able to do something for us."
"Like what? I can't grass up the supplier of that stuff, if that's what you mean. They were planted on me."
"Oh yes, of course they were," said the interrogator. "No, I did not mean that. There other things you could do."
"Oh, I get it. You want money. Well I don't have much on me but I suppose if we went to an ATM…"
The interrogator adopted a pained expression. "Please Mr McCarthy! Make no mention of bribes. My colleagues and I are figures of the utmost integrity. No, what I have in mind is something far easier for you to accomplish, something that will not really put you out in any way but which will allow you to put this whole business behind you."
"What is it then?"
"You are on your way to Greece?"
"You are on your way to Athens in Greece?"
"Yes. You know this."
"Yes, I know this. Well Mr McCarthy, I will come to the point. You are on your way to Greece, to Athens in Greece. And you will continue on your way there without any further vexation on our part." He reached into a pocket in his jacket and took out a memory stick, which he held up for Chris to see. "And when you get to Athens, you will deliver this to a friend of ours there."
"You want me to deliver this to someone in Athens? Why don't you post it to him?" Chris realised that he was almost talking his way out of escaping from the drugs bust, but the interrogator's bizarre proposal raised questions that he had to have answered.
The interrogator seemed genuinely pained by the question. "I do not need to explain our methods to you, Mr McCarthy. Are you willing to do this for me or do you want to spend the next decade in a cell with Corsican Serge?"
Chris began to sense that maybe these threats were somewhat empty, yet the odd proposal was so intriguing that he decided to play along.
"I don't really have good choices here, do I? I will bring the memory stick to this friend of yours. I presume you do not want me to connect it up to a computer and see what's on it?"
"That would be unwise. But I am glad you are willing to be cooperative. I think this is better for everyone."
"I'm sure it is. So where do I bring the stick?" He reached out for it. The interrogator instinctively recoiled, but then gave it to Chris, who dropped it into an inside pocket of his jacket.
"There is a bar named Apollo on the street called Virones. Go there any evening between eight and nine. Ask at the bar for Costas. Costas will greet you as an old friend called Julian. Follow his instructions. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I think so."
"You need to memorise this, Mr McCarthy. It cannot be written down."
"No, I have it. Apollo bar on Virones, between eight and nine, ask for Costas, he will call me Julian and I will do what he says."
"Very good, Mr McCarthy. I am impressed. Now one further thing. I must warn you to make sure that this memory stick does not leave your possession, save when you hand it over to my friend. And you must tell no one one that you have it. Nor must you mention this conversation to anyone, not even this lovely wife of yours. We have many eyes and we will be watching."
"If you have so many eyes, why do you need me to bring this memory stick to your friend?"
"I do not have to explain our ways to you," was the curt reply. "You will cooperate. It is your only choice."
"It is my only choice," said Chris with an air of resignation. "I will cooperate."
"Now," said the interrogator, "we have some time yet before the train reaches Milan. You cannot return to your seat, it would raise too many awkward questions on the part of the other passengers. So you must stay here. And now that we have the business side of our relationship out of the way, we can afford to be more sociable. Tell me, Mr McCarthy, do you have any interest in board games?"
"Board games? Snakes and ladders, Monopoly, that kind of thing?"
"There have been considerable developments in this area. Snakes and ladders, Monopoly, Risk, they no longer excite the interest of a true aficionado such as myself. I thought perhaps we might while away our time with a game of this." He reached behind him and pulled up a box bearing a picture of a train and people in old fashioned costume. "Ticket to Ride - Europe" was written on the cover in big letters. "It is a game about trains and one of my favourites too. I think it would be appropriate an appropriate choice for a game while we complete our own train journey. Would you care to join us in a game?"
"Do I have a choice?" Board games were not really Chris's thing.
"Please humour me in this, Mr McCarthy. I could play this with my colleagues, but it is so much better a game with four."
"Oh alright, I'll play. How does it work?"
The four of them sat around the desk while the Interrogator set up the board and explained the rules. He also seemed to decide that it was time for introductions, giving his name to Chris as Monsieur Marchand and introducing the woman and the brute as Marie and Marcel respectively. Chris took it that none of these were their real names. Marchand produced a bottle of wine and poured four glasses.
"When friends play games, it is only right that they should drink," he said. Whatever, thought Chris.
Chris was surprised at how enjoyable he found the game. He had intended to just go through the motions with it, humouring his captors by providing the barest minimum level of cooperation. But his competitive side kicked in once he started playing. It helped that the rules were simple enough for him to readily grasp, yet the game seemed not to be the entirely chance-based nonsense of the games he had played as a child. The time flew as they played, building their little tracks across a map of 19th century Europe, and it seemed to Chris that he was building an actual rapport with his captors. Marchand was a keen player and was clearly delighted that Chris was throwing himself into the game with gusto. Marcel seemed to enjoy the game also. He displayed no further sign of knowing any English, and said so little in any language that he could pass for a mute, but he became so much more relaxed and almost cuddly that Chris could no longer think of him as "the Brute". And Marie too relaxed into the game and lost the severity of expression that had so intimidated Chris on the first meeting. Her tied back hair seemed well suited to the sharp yet appealing features of her face, while Chris was reminded once more how well the uniform showed off her figure. He had to stop his attention from drifting away from the game to lady Stormtrooper fantasies. The generally odd nature of the situation also proved somewhat distracting.
But he was able to focus enough on the game to be a serious contender in it. In the end, however, Marcel surprised Chris by winning a victory with some bold moves in the last turns. Marchand proved surprisingly gracious in defeat, while Marie remained enigmatic, but Chris felt that bad luck had robbed him of victory.
"How about another game?" he asked.
"I think not, Mr McCarthy," replied Marchand. "We are not far now from Milan and it would be unsatisfying to let such a game start but remain unfinished. No, finish your wine and prepare to leave the train - after the other passengers, of course. And tell me once more, what do you have to do in Athens?"
"Go to the Apollo bar on Virones Street, in the evening between eight and nine, and ask for Costas who will greet me as Julian."
"Very good, Mr McCarthy," said Marchand. "I think you will not disappoint us."
Marcel patted him on the back. Marie smiled at him and made eye contact briefly, the look suggesting to Chris that somehow she understood everything.
Then they felt the brakes as the train began to slow. They must be arriving in Milan now. They sat in silence for the next few minutes as the train slowed to a halt. From outside announcements in Italian, French and English revealed that they were indeed now in Milan's Garibaldi Station. Chris went to get his bag, but Marchand stopped him with a gesture.
They waited. Chris looked at his watch, and then again and again. Only after thirty minutes did Marchand decide that it was time for him to go. Chris stuffed his things back into the bag and threw it over his shoulder.
"We'll keep this," said Marie, holding the bag of powder, with an ambiguous smile on her face.
"Yes, I thought you would," said Chris.
"Goodbye Mr McCarthy," said Marchand. "And good luck."
Chris realised that Marchand was holding out his hand for him to shake. He hesitated momentarily and then took it. "Thank you."
Marcel shook his hand too, grunting something that might also have been a felicitation. Marie surprised him by throwing her arms around him and kissing him on the cheek.
"Au revoir," she whispered in his ear.
Chris descended from the car and walked off into Milan.
The story continues