Complete Stories from Tracks
Sometimes you don't really get a feel for a book until you've enjoyed a meaty excerpt or two.
With that in mind, you'll find two complete stories below from Tracks.
The first story, "Futures," was previously published in JMWW.
The second story, "One Last Hit," was originally published in Freshly Squeezed.
You can also find a complete story, "The Silences," at the online literary journal Slow Trains.
See the Previously Published page for more selections from Tracks.
Enjoy the ride!
With that in mind, you'll find two complete stories below from Tracks.
The first story, "Futures," was previously published in JMWW.
The second story, "One Last Hit," was originally published in Freshly Squeezed.
You can also find a complete story, "The Silences," at the online literary journal Slow Trains.
See the Previously Published page for more selections from Tracks.
Enjoy the ride!
Walking on a train isn’t free and open, like walking on a sidewalk or in a building. Nor is it stiff and uncomfortable, like walking on an airplane. There’s a steady, rhythmic comfort to strolling leisurely down the aisle, balancing hands on the heads of seats as you go. Christi’s direction was clear, but her destination was not. She was in no hurry to get there, wherever “there” was.
In Baltimore, Christi walked all the time, along the Inner Harbor from Federal Hill to Fells Point and back again. When she got to Chicago, she looked forward to a stroll along Lake Shore Drive and a walk down the Magnificent Mile. But for now, the aisle of the passenger train would have to do. She’d already gone all the way to the caboose and was now headed back to her seat.
When her secretary, Jen, had offered to book her flight, Christi had quickly insisted on the train. She needed to ease slowly from one impressionistic place to another. Dashing from Baltimore to Chicago on a plane was like jumping into a too-hot bath. This was a big transition, even if it turned out to be temporary. She’d been submerged in Baltimore yet tethered to Chicago all her life. It took time to drift from one reality to another.
She found her seat and fell into it. Beyond her window, the autumn trees swept by. A man, barely her senior, caught her attention as he passed down the aisle from behind. He carried a spiral notebook in one hand and the yellow stub of a pencil in the other. She admired his physique until he took his seat next to another woman. Christi preferred to look at men, but she turned back to her window and watched a collection of leaves in the distance separate from a branch in a gust of wind. She considered the future. Winter would be here soon. She wondered where she’d be living when the first snowfall came. She wondered who would be living with Craig.
Christi found herself distracted again by the scenery inside the train, which was a relief as it allowed her a momentary escape from the decision at hand. A young man in uniform—army—caught her eye and strode by without giving her a glance. But she looked him over thoroughly as he walked along the center aisle, imagined him holding her in his strong embrace. Wouldn’t work; military guys are too authoritative. The soldier walked through the door, leaving her passenger car for another.
Since Craig had become a thing of the past, Christi caught herself checking out good-looking men more often, the way she might consider a future job prospect. The scenery outside the window didn’t distract her, perhaps because the ever-changing view mimicked her thoughts as she imagined the infinite answers to her problem. The trees, the hills, the rolling farmland—it was like background music from a CD so familiar that she could hear it even when it wasn’t there; sometimes the tracks played and she didn’t even notice it. Right now, she was around track seven, around the middle of her journey, houses spotting the distant hillsides. She didn’t have to make a decision right now. Only consider it. Should she remain on course, living contently in Baltimore, and try to patch things up with Craig? Or should she take on the challenges of Chicago, letting the tracks ahead carry her into unknown places?
She cringed at the sound of the shrill voice behind her. The young couple was at it again. “Say something,” the girl insisted.
Christi heard the boy’s paperback slap his leg. “What do you want me to say?”
“Why don’t you tell me you love me?” the girl pleaded. “Like you used to?”
He sighed. “I love you.” His words sounded forced.
The girl seemed to pick up on it. “It’s not the same when I have to tell you to say it.”
“Can’t win for losing,” the boy griped. “You just asked me to say it, I said it, and now you’re upset because I said it! What the hell do you want? Do you even know?”
Christi did her best to tune out the youngsters as she shifted in her seat, but sometimes it was difficult to silence something that sounded so familiar, like a scene from her own broken relationship she’d rather forget.
Christi moved into the aisle again, this time walking in the direction of the engine. She felt a set of eyes upon her, checking her out just as she had checked out the army guy. At twenty-nine, she still had the look. I move my caboose as well as any train. She smiled at the comparison. Craig doesn’t know how good he had it.
She exited the car and entered another, continuing her leisurely stroll. A balding man—too old—offered her a smile. She smiled back but moved along. She put Craig out of her mind; she had no time for dwelling in the past. She had a future to consider. Or rather, two.
Back in Baltimore, Craig had been a real asshole about things. He was a year older than Christi, but sometimes acted like he was her father. He’d been a nice guy at first, but then she’d gotten to know him. Oh, he knew how to draw a person in, how to charm with flattery. But once taken in—once he knew he had her—he struck with his bossiness, with his stubbornness, with an aggression so startling that Christi didn’t even bother telling anyone about it, knowing that anyone who knew him at arm’s length wouldn’t believe her if she did.
But then again , doesn’t everyone nit-pick the faults of people they love? She realized that many breakups were caused by impossibly inflated expectations.
One evening, Christi and Craig were waiting for their dinner to be served at Red Brick Station, a beer pub and restaurant northeast of the city. Craig lived in Federal Hill where it was more expensive, but as an attorney, he could afford it. Red Brick was a place they both liked for its beer, burgers, and steak. She’d turned him onto the place; it was a spot she’d once frequented with her parents when she was still living with them in their Rodgers Forge rowhouse. She’d been old enough to drink the beer but not yet old enough to live on her own. Now she had a good job, her own apartment in the Forge, and the confidence to go solo, to live wherever and however she pleased.
Craig cringed the first time she’d suggested a restaurant on The Avenue, one of those fabricated “old town square” places, a glorified strip mall across the street from White Marsh Mall, in view of the city’s only IKEA. She never told him that her plates and coffee mugs had come from the chain he so detested. But she’d convinced him to give the suburban restaurant a try, dangling the microbrews as bait she knew he’d take.
“Not as good as Ryleigh’s or Oliver’s,” Craig said as they waited for their steaks, “but pretty damn delicious.” Red Brick had become a weekly staple for them on nights when he stayed at her place. He’d tried all of their regular house beers; Daily Crisis IPA was his favorite. She usually went to him, where the action was, in the Federal Hill area or downtown. Suggesting Red Brick was her way of reestablishing some independence, of testing him to see whether he would meet her halfway and do things she wanted to do.
“More roomy than Ryleigh’s or the Wharf Rat,” Christi defended. “And better food.”
“But the beer,” Craig insisted like a true connoisseur. “The beer steers the meal.”
“Beer without food is like a man without a woman,” Christi teased. “You need substance.”
After a moment of quiet sipping, Craig cleared his throat. “Listen, Christi,” he said in his lawyer’s voice, demanding attention. He was already on his second beer; she was only halfway through her first. “We’ve been an item for what, seven months now?”
“Nine,” she corrected.
“So I think it’s about time.” He pulled out a small jewelry box of blue velvet.
“No way!” Her heart pounded and she began to feel dizzy, the way she felt sometimes when she had to make a presentation before the executive board. “No way!” She took the box in her hands and looked up at Craig’s smiling face.
“Go on,” he said.
She opened the box to find…a key. The look of overwhelmed joy she’d planned melted away and became confusion instead.
“It’s a key to my place,” he burst out. “I think it’s time you move in with me!”
Disappointment lingered, to be sure, but relief came too. She appreciated the gesture, but found his approach arrogant: the set-up, the fall, and his assumption that he’d offered her some great gift, like shelter for a stray dog. “Craig, I don’t know. I’ve got my own place. I like my place.”
“Christi, come on! We’re talking Federal Hill here!” Federal Hill was, after all, the place where young professionals played, if not always where they lived. Craig’s neighbors were all doctors, lawyers, landlords, realtors, or executives, none of them over forty. Sitting there in the restaurant, Craig outlined the pros of living together in Federal Hill. His apartment on William Street was a hop to dozens of their favorite pubs, restaurants, and hangouts—and a crawl back. They were just a block from Cross Street Market, and the harbor was only a five-minute stroll away. By the time their New York strips arrived, neighbored by baked potatoes, he’d convinced her.
“I’ll have to break my lease,” she said. “That’ll cost me my security deposit—a month’s rent.”
“Then as an added gift,” he offered, “you don’t have to chip in the first month. After that, you only have to pay half the rent. Not much more than you’re paying way out here.”
“That’s right,” she said, realizing what she hadn’t considered before. “We’ll have to get practical. Groceries, households, utilities, cable, rent—straight down the middle?”
“I don’t know about that.” He grinned. “I mean, I can put in a little extra. I’ll have you in my bed every night. I’m sure you can make up the difference.”
Christi paused, her steak knife in hand; she had a sudden urge to use it. She sliced through the medium-well strip of meat. “Funny,” she said, her tone making clear that it wasn’t. His sense of humor had been one of the qualities she’d fallen in love with — that, and his hot, GQ look. It’ll be a test. We’ll see if we’re really compatible. She chewed.
“Way I see it,” Craig said, mouth full, “this is better than getting hitched.” He took a hearty gulp of ale, his mouth still working at the meat. “All the benefits, none of the drawbacks.” When the waitress came, he clinked his empty glass with his fork. Christi continued to nurse her first beer.
Christi moved along the train, once in a while spotting a young man with a cute face or an older man with a look of respectable distinction. There were women and children seated on the train too, but her eyes honed in on the men. So many choices seated before her, each smiling at her with charm and promise. But don’t they all look like that at first? With their put-on manners and made-up appearances? Then, you let them get comfortable with you and they reveal who they really are. She wondered whether Craig’s proposition that she live with him had been nothing more than a calculated act of convenience—a woman in bed every night and someone to pay half the bills.
Part of her still wished Craig was coming with her to Chicago. She wasn’t exactly a stranger to the city, but she’d never been alone. Christi had been twelve, still an impressionable child, when her parents took her to spend the summer with Grandma in Chicago. They’d gone to the Windy City for brief visits since before she could remember, but that summer, Christi got to know Grandma—and Chicago—intimately. Grandma had taken her to the Art Institute, where they’d spent a heavenly day admiring the paintings, her favorite being Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
At the end of another passenger car, Christi stopped, closed her eyes, and saw the beautiful picture again: gentlemen in top hats and canes, women with their parasols, children playing, boats upon the water. As a grade-schooler, she believed such a place existed, a place with such gentlemen, where she could be a sophisticated lady and go for a Sunday walk in the park. She’d always imagined the place in that picture was somewhere in Chicago.
Christi opened her eyes and continued strolling down the aisle. Sometimes she felt she belonged in Chicago as surely as the Seurat belonged in the city’s Art Institute. Other times she considered the city just one small dot on the canvas of her life, her true home being Baltimore.
Her company’s headquarters were in Chicago, and this one-month assignment was meant to be a test-run for her and for the company. She was one of the young superstar executives in the Baltimore office, so it was natural for her to be at the top of their list. Moving to Chicago would mean a promotion to Senior Associate under one of the four vice presidents of the company. She would be the second person to reach such status within the company at such a young age; the first—Mr. Ubukata—had made vice president at age thirty-one. He was a child among the other top brass, all of them in their sixties and crowned with silver hair.
She would need the raise if she was going to get an apartment near the office. She’d found a place online. Presidential Towers was nearby and offered everything one could want right within the base of the towers: restaurants, bars, a grocery store, copy center, jewelry store, even a health club. But if she was going to live in the big playground of Chicago, she wanted to get out and play. She wanted somewhere close enough to work, but also close to Lake Shore Drive, where she could stroll to Navy Pier, walk along the beach, feel the water of Lake Michigan. She wanted to amble through the city, enjoy its architecture, touch the Chicago Picasso. And there was Grant Park with its beautiful Buckingham Fountain, where she’d left her pennies during her last visit with Grandma.
“You’ll be coming back here,” Grandma had said after watching her throw in the penny.
“When you drop a penny in a fountain, that means you’ll be coming back.”
Christi did return to visit Grandma, but she looked different in the funeral home, like wax. Chicago looked the same; it felt like Grandma. But Baltimore felt like everything else.
Christi never actually believed she would move to Chicago. But life had its unexpected bends. Who’d have expected me to become so successful so fast? From sales rep to senior associate in five years!
There were several women in senior associate positions, but none in the vice president slots; she hoped to be the first. If Ubukata could manage it by thirty-one, certainly she could get there too. Ubukata was an intelligent man, but she had more than smarts. She had the looks and charm she needed and knew how to strut with confidence.
With each step along the train, Christi grew more certain that she was headed in the right direction, leaving Craig in Baltimore and finding her future in Chicago. She began to walk more freely, strolling along without the help of every other headrest. She anticipated the twists and turns of the train as she went forward.
Her sure footing was an illusion. The train shot around a curve and she tumbled off her feet, landing in the lap of an older man. She scrambled to get a grip on something and ended up grasping his arms, their faces inches apart.
The man grinned. “Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry,” she said, struggling to lift herself out of his lap.
“Are you headed for the lounge?”
Christi regained her footing. “No. Just for a walk.” As she strolled away, she could feel his experienced eyes running along her backside. Yes, she thought as she walked on. I’ve still got it. There were men in Chicago, better than Craig. It was a big city.
Baltimore was known as many things: The City That Reads, The City That Believes. Benches along the streets referred to Baltimore as Charm City and The Greatest City in America. But to Christi, who was born and raised due north of Baltimore in the tight-knit community of Rodgers Forge, Baltimore was simply her home and harbor.
Christi’s family lived only half an hour’s drive from the Inner Harbor, so they went often. As a child, she’d enjoyed the playground atop Federal Hill, and when she became too old for the swings, she enjoyed the view of the harbor from the same location, beneath the giant flag and beside the cannon, watching the people walk along the promenade from the same place Americans had watched for British ships in 1812.
In the humid days of summer, descending from the hill into the harbor was like sinking into a familiar hot tub. People flowed around her, currents in both directions. Children’s laughter accompanied the carousel’s cheerful music. Volleyball games took place in the same arena that saw ice-skating in the winters, not far from the giant mast that paid tribute to the goodwill ship lost at sea, the Pride of Baltimore. Street musicians played guitars and pan flutes, saxophones and drums, and entertainers rode unicycles, juggled flames and knives, told jokes, and performed magic. Artists painted and chalked the edges of the boardwalk. Water taxis blew their horns, leaving port only to be replaced by another within minutes, a steady cycle that took people from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry, Fells Point, and more than a dozen harbor-side destinations. The USS Constellation sounded its cannon, and the Clipper City and dinner cruise ships beckoned. The twin-pyramid points of the National Aquarium towered above. Then, on to Little Italy, home of Vaccaro’s, the best place for dessert. And from Little Italy it was just a skip to Fells Point with its many pubs.
Places touched Christi more than people. Places were reliable. They didn’t change overnight or move or die, as people did. Craig and her parents were important, but a warm comfort spilled over her when she thought of her favorite places. When she thought of her parents, she thought of her house, her neighborhood, the Baltimore Zoo and the B&O Museum. When she thought of her grandmother, she thought of Chicago and all the places they’d visited together that windy summer. When she thought of Craig, she thought of their favorite restaurants and pubs.
Christy had never timed the walk from Federal Hill to Fells Point. That would be hard to do since she stopped to enjoy the sights, not the least of which was the Chesapeake Bay itself, filled with sailboats, tall ships, paddle boats, and dragon-shaped boats for the kids.
“Let’s take a taxi,” Craig insisted one beautiful Saturday afternoon.
“I want to walk.” Christi needed time to think, time to prepare for her news of the evening. She’d already told her parents she was going to Chicago; she’d apprehensively saved the closest person for last.
Craig followed along, annoyed to be passing the water-taxi stop. “It’ll take us an hour to get to Fells Point! We’re gonna pay for a day pass to get back home anyway; let’s take advantage of it now.”
“I want to walk home, too.” They were going to hit the pubs of Fells Point after dinner in Little Italy. Should I tell him at dinner, or over drinks?
“That’ll take an hour and a half! In the dark!”
She continued looking straight ahead as they walked along the harbor, facing the Hard Rock Cafe’s giant guitar on the smokestacks above the Barnes & Noble bookstore. “There’ll be plenty of light. It’s a full moon tonight.”
“We’ll be drunk; you want to stumble home?”
“You’ll be drunk,” she corrected. “It’s a beautiful walk.”
He huffed, then grinned. “You might be walking home alone.” But she knew he wouldn’t let her do that.
Craig could be moody, but that wasn’t who he was. It was only a sliver of him—even if it was the sliver that sometimes seemed to splinter her. There was the better part of their time together—his protective hold, his romantic words, the spark between them as they held hands and went for an evening stroll. A hundred places in Baltimore reminded her of Craig. She imagined Craig overshadowing Grandma in her mind as they visited the sites in Chicago. At dinner, Craig toasted to their night ahead. Christi couldn’t wait to break the news.
After dinner, they strolled to Fells Point and he suggested they go to the cigar lounge on the second floor of Max’s. She admitted it was a handsome room: dark wood, attractive posters, leatherback chairs. But there was more to a place than the look of it.
“I feel like we’re in a giant ash tray.” Christi waved her hand between them. “A nice ashtray, but an ashtray.”
Craig responded by blowing a puff of cigar smoke above them. It hovered there like a dark cloud. He drank a German dopplebock. She sipped a Degroens, one of the local brews.
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke those awful things,” she said.
“You don’t want me smoking in the apartment and I give you that! Let me have one here. Better than cigarettes.”
“A bullet to the arm’s better than a bullet to the head. Want me to get a gun?”
He laughed. “Just once a week, baby. No harm in that. Beer’s not good for you either.”
“Not when you guzzle it the way you do.” She continued to sip her third brew of the night. He’d lost count after five.
More than cigar smoke made Christi uneasy. Tonight it was her turn to demand his attention. “Listen, Craig, I need to talk to you about something.”
He took the cigar from his mouth and flicked off the ash, then casually checked the red-hot end. “What?”
“I got the best news at work! An opportunity I can’t pass up.”
Craig’s blank gaze showed that he wasn’t sure whether this was good news or bad, for him. “Really?”
“Next month, I’m going to Chicago!” She watched his face register the news. “It’s temporary,” she added before he could speak, wanting to reassure him that she wasn’t leaving him. “One month.” Then, thinking better of it and wanting to be honest about the whole thing, she admitted, “But if it works out, it could turn into a permanent position.” She watched him. “A promotion.”
He puffed his cigar.
He blew smoke in her face, as though to cloud out the news.
“It’d be a great opportunity for you to take a couple weeks off, have an all-expense-paid vacation in Chicago. Why don’t you join me?”
Craig masked his feelings with a practiced lawyer face. But his eyes reddened, and it didn’t seem to be from the smoke in the room. “Chicago, huh?”
“Yes! Isn’t it great? The Windy City!”
“Windy, but not very charming.” Through the gruffness, it sounded like he was on the verge of tears.
“Okay, so it’s not Charm City. But I like Chicago.”
“I can’t take off on such short notice.” He spoke more to the cigar than to her. “I’ve got the fraudulent futures case.”
“You know, the broker who scammed those novice investors, selling them futures that didn’t exist? I’m defending him.”
“You’re defending that sleaze?”
“Got the assignment this week.” He hardened; now his eyes were more defensive than sad. “I’ve got to.”
“I thought you were going to argue for a better assignment.”
Craig shrugged his shoulders; they looked too heavy for him. “I take what I’m given.” It was as though he was giving up, on work and on her.
Smoke enveloped them; it was easy to drift in the fog. After a moment, Christy suggested, “Maybe you could just come for a long weekend.”
“Maybe,” he said, offering nothing. “When are you going?”
“In three weeks.”
He nodded. “So I guess I’ll need to find a new roommate.”
“What?” Her eyes widened with shock. “Craig, don’t be crazy! I’m not moving out! You come to Chicago with me, try it out. If you hate it that much, I can come back here.”
“You know better than that,” he said. “They’ll want to keep you. You won’t pass up a promotion, Miss Upward Mobility.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She took a gulp of beer.
“You’re always looking to move up.”
She slammed down her pint. “It’s called ambition! Something a lazy-ass like you wouldn’t understand!”
“Ambition?” He scoffed. “Hell, that’s why you moved in with me! Miss Working Girl leaves suburbia to live with Mr. Attorney on the hill.”
Christi leaned into the table. “You asked me to move in, like it was some sort of great gift or something! I was happy where I was! You’re the one who wanted it, hon!”
The cigar was beyond smoking, but he continued to puff on the blunt. She watched him grimace as the harsh smoke stung his lips and tongue. “I thought we both wanted it,” he said.
She walked home alone that night; Craig took a taxi. He was decent enough to ask her to get in with him, but that wasn’t enough. He was supposed to toast her success, to celebrate by seduction. He was supposed revel in the adventure they would have, taking the train to Chicago where they had the opportunity to start a new life. Instead, he’d left her in the moonlit harbor to walk home alone.
So she was headed for the lounge car after all. That’s where her walk along the moving train took her. Beer reminded her of Craig, so she had a chardonnay instead. She strolled across the lounge and sat in one of the vacant seats. She glanced at those around her—a woman with a tattoo on her back, an older couple drinking beer and iced tea, an old man writing in his daily planner, a woman about her age crying over a piece of
paper—and then Christi looked directly out the window at the autumn trees, their leaves blown to the ground, expelled from their branches.
She’d been evicted, more or less. She’d been in love with Craig, felt comfortable with him, actually believed he might be the man she would marry one day. The future she envisioned with him turned out to be a fraudulent one. So why didn’t I cry?
By the time Christi had decided to indulge herself with a second chardonnay, the annoying young couple she’d left her seat to avoid stood at the other end of the lounge. She watched them from her seat, far enough away not to hear them. They’d made up, apparently, sporting goofy, puppy-love smiles between sips of bottled water. Christi looked away and took a swallow of chardonnay.
Some women remained in abusive relationships for years before wising up. Others never found the wisdom to move on. Christi knew Craig wasn’t perfect, but he was never abusive either. She wasn’t naive enough to believe in fairy tales and happy endings. She’d settled for Craig, figured that even with his faults, he was as good as it got. Good enough. But now she wasn’t so sure. She hoped this temporary exile would help her sort things out.
She was excited by the promise Chicago held, but wasn’t sure she wanted to pick up and move her entire life to a new city in the middle of the country. She longed to stroll along Lake Shore Drive and feel the lake’s cool breeze. But that would mean giving up the Inner Harbor. She imagined exhilarating Sundays spent in the Chicago Institute of Art, but that would mean giving up the American Visionary Arts Museum downtown and the Smithsonian in DC. She could see herself walking down the Magnificent Mile, but did the Magnificent Mile hold a candle to the National Mall and all of the capitol’s monuments? She longed for a fresh start, but her best memories were anchored in Baltimore. Many of them with Craig.
Christi knew Craig would take her back. All she had to do was call him up, tell him she changed her mind, decided on him over her career. Maybe they still had a future.
Her things were back at her parents’ place. She would always have her parents to visit during the holidays and vacations. Well, not always, but for a long while yet. She’d have all of her friends, and business trips to the Baltimore office, to be sure, for weeks at a time during the course of a year. Living in Chicago wouldn’t mean cutting the lines to Baltimore.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the uniform again. She turned and looked, saw the soldier there, sitting and sipping a beer. The young man had a concerned look pinned to his face, like a medal he’d rather not have. There are wars going on,He’s got real problems to worry about.
She knew her decision probably wasn’t as difficult as the soldier’s, but it was hers, and it was real. How did that Tracy Chapman song go? The track of a familiar CD played in her head. You’ve got to make a decision: leave tonight or live and die this way.
Christi looked out the window, the landscape progressing from eastern to mid-western. She wanted Baltimore and Chicago—Craig and a career—to fit neatly together like the cars through which she’d just walked. She needed to decide which future to take, and abandon one for the other, just as Craig had abandoned her—or she had abandoned him for her ambition.
As she sat, sipping her chardonnay, he walked in—the man whose lap she’d fallen into. He waved and smiled as he waited for a drink. Once he had his mixed drink in hand, he walked over. “Thought you were walking.”
“I was,” Christi said. “This is where I ended up.”
He took a seat beside her. “Guess you never know where you’ll end up.”
“Nope.” Christi didn’t particularly want to talk with this man. But she did feel like talking things out. “You can end up doing one thing for years and not see the opportunities lining up until they’re right in front of you.”
The man nodded and took a gulp of his yellow-orange cocktail. He thrust his hand in her direction. “Name’s Murdock.”
She took his hand and gave her name.
“Christi,” he repeated. “Nice name. Got a boyfriend waiting in Chicago?”
“Baltimore,” she replied reflexively. “Well, not anymore, I guess. We broke up.”
“We were practically engaged—lived together over a year. But then I got this opportunity in Chicago.” She sipped her wine, a story filling her mind and covering her sense of loss. “So I dumped the bastard.”
Murdock lifted his glass to salute her. “You made the right choice.” They clanked glasses. “In my experience, long-lasting relationships never last long.”
She laughed. But as she sipped her drink, she hoped he had it wrong.
The man with the planner, a few seats over, joined their conversation. “They do if you want them to.”
“Huh?” Murdock asked as he and Christi turned toward the stranger.
“My Anna and I have been married twenty-five years,” the ashen-haired man said. The planner in his lap looked like a Bible with its rich leather cover. “Happily,” he added.
“That’s great,” Christi said. She preferred this man’s advice to what Murdock had to sell. “Congratulations.”
The planner man elaborated. “I mention it because I overheard you talking about your boyfriend.”
“Oh, Craig,” Christi sighed. “He’s history.”
Murdock looked down at his worn shoes, seeming uninterested in a conversation he wasn’t controlling. The older man talked over Murdock’s head. “Of course, I don’t know the details. But think about it. You may live to regret it.”
“You think?” she asked. “I mean, I invited him to come along. He wouldn’t.”
Murdock excused himself to get another drink. This kinder man had no obvious agenda other than to offer advice. He told her his name was Prewitt. “Just consider carefully what you’re planning. You might be making the right choice, depending on who this guy is you left behind. But at the end of the line, success is measured in love, not money—in people, not position.”
“Yeah.” Christi shifted in her seat. “But you don’t know Craig.”
“Just remember, an ideal relationship is based on compromise.” Prewitt smiled gently. “Consider your plans carefully.”
Christi looked at him and then peered into her wine as though it would answer the question for her. It didn’t, so she drank it down. She looked back at the ashen-haired man. “Thanks. I will.” She slipped out of the lounge and made her way slowly down the aisles of passenger cars.
Christi knew a person couldn’t walk forever. Sometimes you had to settle down and rest. She’d been sitting in her passenger seat for hours now, looking at the orientation package from company headquarters and enjoying the scenery—inside and out. So many potentially interesting places and people passed by.
Her head raced. She imagined herself with a Prewitt-aged Craig, giving up on her promotion and returning to him in Baltimore. Booting out whatever floozy he’d found to split his rent, letting him know she’d given up her ambition to be with him. She imagined their elegant wedding, their honeymoon on some exotic island, settling into a house somewhere between the city and the suburbs. She imagined living the stress-free life of a sales associate, enjoying restaurant dinners seasoned by Craig’s stories of each sleaze he defended, the two of them laughing at the money made in helping the rich get away with murder. She could see herself with Craig, taking an anniversary vacation, telling another passenger on the train that they’d been married happily for twenty-five years, that relationships could last if you worked hard at it.
And what a lot of hard work it would be. Even as Christi imagined a life with Craig, she knew it wasn’t really what she wanted. Sure, she needed someone to love, wanted someone to share her life with, but when she allowed rational thought to trample over her feelings, she knew that Craig wasn’t the right man for her. Or was she expecting too much in a man?
The lovebirds behind her were at it again.
“What are you thinking?” the boy asked.
“You know,” The girl teased.
“I love you too,” he said.
This was worse than when they’d been arguing. She plunked the open orientation booklet on the empty seat beside her and began another walk. She headed toward the lounge car.
She passed the place where she’d fallen into Murdock’s lap earlier. The seat was empty now, which probably meant she’d see him in the lounge. She’d have to find a place to sit where he couldn’t creep in beside her. All she really wanted was to be alone right now. If she had to talk to someone, she’d rather it be the nice old man with the planner—Prewitt.
She exited one car for another, and sure enough, there was Prewitt, walking toward her. There was something different about him, as though a part of him were missing. He looked worried, confused, upset. “Hi,” she greeted as they met toward the front of the passenger car.
“Hello,” he returned. He took a deep breath and regained his composure. “Have you given some thought to your boyfriend back home?”
“I have,” she said. “And I decided you’re right. A healthy relationship should last.”
“Good,” Prewitt said. “Then you’ll be going back?”
“No.” Christi let out a little laugh. “Craig and I would never last that long. But you made me realize I need to find a better man. One I can grow old with.”
Prewitt nodded and smiled. He opened his mouth to say something more, but his cell phone rang and interrupted him. He looked at the phone’s screen. “My manager,” he said in an excited tone. “Excuse me.” He stepped toward the front of the car, holding onto the railing next to the doorway with one hand and placing the phone to his ear with the other. Christi wasn’t sure whether to stand and wait, or walk past him, through the doorway. She had an awkward feeling she should stay, as though their conversation hadn’t finished. She longed for another breath of his wisdom to validate her decision.
“Yes,” he said to the phone. “No, not off the top of my head…no, I don’t have it with me. I’ll look. Yes. I’ll call you back…”
When he disconnected and slipped the phone back in his pocket, he seemed to have forgotten she was there. He grasped the handrail with both hands, pressed his forehead against the wall, and breathed heavily.
Christy stepped gingerly toward him. “Are you all right?”
Startled, Prewitt pushed away from the doorway and turned to face her. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to respond. A shocked look jolted across his face.
“Oh my God!” Christi cried, standing directly in front of him. He seemed to want to say something, his eyes pleading as he clenched at his chest, but he found no time for words as he gasped for air.
She knew what this was. “A heart attack!” she yelled. His wide eyes called for her, one hand at his chest, the other reaching out. She tried to hold him up, but he tumbled into her and his weight was too much. They both fell to the floor in the open aisle.
“Help!” she called from the floor, Prewitt gasping beside her. A murmur hummed throughout the car, the confused passengers watching, some standing, others remaining in their seats. Christi got on her knees and managed to turn Prewitt over to his back. She yelled again. “He’s having a heart attack! Is there a doctor, nurse, anyone?” The confused noise swelled to a roar, but no one answered the call directly. Christi knelt over the Prewitt. She ripped open his shirt and began pumping his chest with her hands, struggling to remember how it went. Pump, then breathe? No, clear his mouth first! Turn his head? Pump hard—don’t be afraid to break his ribs!
“Is there trouble here?” asked a man’s voice. Christi looked up to see the conductor approaching from the far end of the car. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Heart attack!” Christy cried out.
“Lord have mercy!” He darted back the way he came. “Any medics on board?” He left the car on a mission.
Prewitt’s open eyes stared up at Christi, but no life remained in them. She didn’t give up, pressing her lips against his, pumping his gray-haired chest.
Paramedics rushed into the car and asked everyone—including Christi—to clear the aisle. The conductor kept a respectful distance at the back of the car. Other passengers sat in their seats and stared in fascination, as though they’d scored front-row tickets to some morose, sold-out show. The paramedics worked on him for nearly ten minutes before placing his body on a stretcher. “The next stop is in fifteen minutes,” one of the paramedics said for the unwanted audience to hear. “An ambulance is waiting.”
Christi went to Prewitt’s side and looked into his exhausted face. He appeared more in pain than at peace. No one should be alone when they die. She took his heavy hand—still warm—and held it between hers until the paramedics asked her to step aside so they could get him in position to rush off the train as soon as they arrived at the station.
They didn’t cover his body as they rushed him off the train, but Christi knew he was dead. She remembered how happy he had seemed earlier when he’d talked about his wife and their twenty-five years together. Christi imagined his wife, how it would feel to have a large part of one’s self cut away.
If Christi went to the lounge car now, she’d probably be forced to tell the story a dozen times over, about how she’d tried to save this dying man and failed. She went to her seat. The boy in the seat behind her read his paperback of Poe while the girl leaned on him, her eyes closed and a peaceful expression on her face. They looked like purity itself—the kind that could last a lifetime. The kind she imagined Prewitt and Anna possessed. The kind she and Craig could never achieve. Christi sat, took a deep breath, and stared out the window.
She couldn’t wait to get to Chicago now. She still missed Craig more than she blamed him, but that wasn’t enough to wrap a life around. He’d been more of a stepping stone than a soul mate.
Christi shut her eyes and saw Prewitt. It was time to choose a direction and start walking. She had more faith in Chicago than she did in Craig. Chicago was bigger than any one man and the opportunities were infinite.
One Last Hit
Charlie hovered at the back of the train’s passenger car, watching the people in their seats. There was one person in particular Charlie wanted to keep his eye on: Gene Silverman. Silverman was an easy man to keep in sight; the whiz kid stood tall above the crowd with his crown of silver hair. Charlie walked past him and found his own seat, but continued to scan the car as a pretense for keeping his eye on his target.
Charlie considered himself an observer by nature, so tuned in to those around him that he studied them even when he wasn’t thinking about it. By habit, not by nature, he corrected himself. After all, what is a person’s nature if not an internalized skill or habit? People-watching was a necessary skill in Charlie’s line of work, one he’d been forced to learn. Now, it had become second nature.
He had until Chicago to do the job. He needed to keep Silverman in sight for the bulk of the trip. He’d wait until the rural flatlands of Indiana to confront him.
With the train flowing steadily along--choo-ka, choo-ka, choo-ka--and with most of the passengers settled in for the long ride ahead, Charlie once again leaned forward and peeked around at all the people he didn’t care about in order to steal a glance at the one he did. Silverman sat with a yellow pad of paper open on his lap. Charlie stood and walked past him, returning to the back of the car. He took a pack of non-filtered Basics from the pocket of his brown leather jacket and flicked his wrist until one of the cigarettes popped up. He took it into his lips, returned the package to his pocket and got out his gold Zippo. With a practiced, one-hand motion, he sparked fire.
An old man seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Hold it, Mister.” He wore a uniform with the Amtrak name and insignia on the blazer. “I’m afraid there’s no smoking on the train.”
“No smoking?” Charlie’s voice was as rough as his appearance: purposeful, intense, demanding. “You mean to tell me I can’t even have a cigarette here in back?”
“Afraid not,” the old man said. “Company policy. Now, you can get off and smoke at the stations on the platforms if you’d like. But not on the train. We’re a smoke-free train.”
“Ain’t that something,” Charlie griped. He put the cigarette back in the pack and walked slowly to his seat. Moments later, he peered back again. Silverman still stared at his yellow pad with blank eyes, seeming not to read it. He ain’t going nowhere. If he does, I’ll see him pass. Charlie sank back into the undersized chair. He could allow himself to rest, but he couldn’t go to sleep. He had to stay alert. When he got this job done, that would be it. He’d be out. It would be enough for him to retire on. I can’t screw this one up.
Before sending Charlie after Silverman, the Boss had filled him in. To say that the Boss had all but forgotten Eugene Beckett (aka Gene Silverman) was true enough; that is, he had not forgotten his former employee at all. It was as big a surprise as the Boss had ever received, when he realized the whiz kid wasn’t coming back—a bigger surprise than when the kid had set up their entire new enterprise of identity theft and Internet crimes. Eugene had screwed him in the ass by taking off without training a replacement. Eugene Beckett needed to be taken care of.
On the other hand, the Boss owed a lot to the kid, not the least of which was gratitude. A replacement could be found. The Boss couldn’t manage the online bookkeeping or the accounts, but the prostitutes, drug dealing, and gambling racket still brought in the dough. It took a few weeks, but the Boss had made some calls, screened some people, and found someone who could take over the kid’s duties. Eugene had set them up with a great business and doubled their income with little to no increased expense. Was that something to punish, especially considering that the kid decided to leave all future profits to him?
No. If anything, Eugene Beckett deserved royalties. That’s why the Boss had let it go. Water under the bridge. The Boss had practically forgotten the kid…until years later when the little bastard resurfaced with talk about legalizing the illegal activities that had made him who he was. Silverman needed to be silenced; before the Boss realized Silverman and Beckett were one and the same, he put some spies on the job to dig up Silverman’s story.
The Boss often described surprises as unexpected gifts received without occasion: a string of pearls for the skillful girls who’d known how to make him feel good; the extra wad of bills to the dealer who’d managed to move a briefcase full of coke the night before the cops were to raid the buyer’s crack-house; the home theater for the nice cop who’d tipped them off. These were surprises, and the Boss liked surprises.
But there were surprises he did not like: finding out one of his prostitutes had AIDS and, desperate for money, didn’t tell him, turning tricks until she had infected several loyal customers; catching one of his men pinching from the drugs he was supposed to be selling and stealing from the money he was getting for what he sold; the whiz kid leaving him—and to top it off, the surprise that the asshole trying to undermine his livelihood was the same kid who’d helped build it up. Gene Silverman was Eugene Beckett, his spies informed him. Whatever name the little prick went by, it was time to knock him off. So the Boss called Charlie.
Charlie got the call in the summer, when the Boss knew he was in town to visit his teenage son. Charlie had split with his woman, but he still spent a week or so with her and the kid every few months, for the boy’s sake. While Charlie was in Baltimore, the Boss invited him to his restaurant in Little Italy. The meal was good, but he hardly enjoyed it, anticipating what the Boss wanted. Charlie wasn’t a regular employee anymore. He was a consultant, so to speak; an on-call specialist and old friend. Featured on the Boss’s short list, he got summoned half a dozen times a year. But his jobs were big ones, and he was paid better for his part-time work than most of the stooges who kept regular hours.
Charlie ate his pasta alfredo while the Boss chewed his veal parmesan. They drank house sangrias and talked about the Ravens and the Orioles, about their friends and relations. All the while, Charlie wondered what the job would be, how big, and how much. Will it be enough to get out for good? On the other hand, he didn’t want it to be too big. He didn’t care much for those jobs.
Most people in Fells Point who knew the Boss also knew the Boss’s business, or they knew enough not to ask. But there were those innocents who did ask, not to catch him in the act, but out of sincere curiosity. For that reason, he’d acquired one of the Italian restaurants in neighboring Little Italy and a bar in Fells Point. He kept his home base at the Fells Point rowhouse, but with the new properties, he often preferred to meet people and do business in the offices of his more respectable establishments.
After dinner, they retired to the upstairs office. The Boss offered Charlie a Cuban and poured them each a snifter of French brandy, then took a seat in the leather high-back chair behind his large cherry desk. Charlie sat in one of the leather chairs on the opposite side of the desk.
The Boss leaned back and puffed on his cigar. Charlie followed suit. In the small attic office they soon found themselves in a musty cloud of their own making. The Boss got to the point. “You heard of Gene Silverman?”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “The fool who’s saying everything should be legal. Trying to put the cops out of business.”
The Boss studied the ash of his cigar. “Trying to put us out of business.”
Charlie nodded. “I guess so.”
“I know so,” the Boss insisted. “Not that it’ll ever happen. People been trying to legalize pot as long as I can remember and most states won’t hear of it. But still, he’s starting a regular grass-roots movement. He’s got to be shut up.”
“Want me to scare him? Disfigure his face or something?”
“I think a little more.” His eyes caught Charlie’s, making direct contact for the first time since they’d climbed the stairs. Charlie knew what the Boss found in his eyes: fear and regret, the reluctance of a tired man who no longer wanted the work. Regardless, the Boss continued. “Warning the bastard would just…well, warn him...alert him to us, put him on guard. He knows too much; that makes him dangerous. You know who he is?”
“Nope. Don’t know his history.”
“His history’s with us.” The lines of his face seemed deeper in the dim light of the stained-glass lamp. “Eugene Beckett.”
Charlie searched his memory. “The computer geek?” He tried to remember the whiz kid, tried to picture him, before and after.
“The identity thief’s gone and stolen himself an identity and didn’t have the brains to keep it quiet. You’ll silence him, but it’ll take more than duct tape, I think.”
“You know I’ve been trying to quit,” Charlie said. “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing. Let’s just beat him around a little. Scare him.”
“Shit, Charlie. You’re as good as they come. Too old my ass.”
Charlie’s cigar had died out. “That’s just it. I’ve had my share of close calls with vengeful friends and clever cops. I’m getting Social Security, for Christ’s sake, from the few legit jobs I paid taxes on. I don’t want to spend the last decade of my life in jail. The stakes are too high. I don’t want to lose these last few years I have left in me. I’ve been enjoying retirement too much.”
The Boss stared Charlie down. “This is more than just a job. It’s personal. Your retirement’s at risk if you don’t snuff him out.”
Confused, Charlie asked, “How’s that?”
“Think about who we’re talking about here. Computer whiz, identity expert. Don’t you think he took some insurance when he left?”
“I don’t get you.”
“Silverman’s got our numbers. I’ll bet he’s got our Social Security numbers and all kinds of incriminating info on us. He had access to everything on our computers and I’ll bet he still has it socked away. He goes to the cops, retirement’s over.”
The phone rang. The Boss picked up the black receiver and swiveled around so all Charlie could see of him was the back of the leather chair and the smoke rising from it. Charlie wanted out, but this Silverman issue was a delicate matter. How many times had he promised himself this would be the last man?
For the past few years, most of the jobs he’d been given were simple ones: he’d followed people, frightened them into paying, beaten them into submission. He’d broken a leg, flattened a nose, cracked a few ribs. He’d sliced a guy’s little finger off with his cigar cutter. He didn’t pretend they were good jobs, but they were better than death. He’d only taken one big job during the past year. He’d already killed enough men in his life. When he was young, death didn’t bother him. Now it did.
The Boss turned around and put the phone back in the cradle, then refreshed their brandies. “Where were we?”
“You were just telling me that if I promise to do a good job on this one, it’ll be the last time you ask.” A tremor rang in Charlie’s usually confident voice as he dared to speak so candidly to the Boss.
The Boss smiled. “You’ll be paid well.” He noticed Charlie’s cigar was out and passed him the desk lighter. “Fifty thousand.”
Charlie stalled. He flicked the lighter to life. “Since this will be my retirement bash, how about a little extra?” He puffed at his cigar until satisfied with the red-hot tip.
“Don’t I always give you a bonus?”
Charlie nodded. “You do.”
“I appreciate your work. You’re one of the best, and I’ll miss having you on call. But I understand. You’ve earned your retirement. You gonna get that place in the Keys?”
“Yeah,” Charlie answered. “And I’ll keep the place here, too, for the boy and his ma.”
“You’ll still stop by and see me when you’re in town.”
“No doubt about it.”
The Boss nodded. A hush mixed with the smoke. The Boss finished his brandy. “You do a good job, untraceable, and your bonus’ll be another fifty.”
A hundred thousand! That would push his offshore account up to his goal of two mil, in just one job. Charlie grinned. “Hell, I’ll kill his mother too.”
The Boss laughed. “Not necessary,” he said. “But as for Gene Silverman …” He jabbed his cigar into the ashtray, twisting it until the smoke faded.
“Consider it done.” Charlie put out his own, less dramatically.
The Boss picked up the brandy bottle, almost empty. “Let me hit you with this one last time.” A shared drink was the only contract they’d ever required. They raised their glasses and sealed the deal.
Charlie wasn’t born into organized crime; he’d sought it out. As the only child of a family living in a Little Italy rowhouse, he wasn’t poor, but he’d had relatively humble beginnings that pointed to him becoming the manager of an ethnic grocery store or dry cleaner. His father was Italian and his mother was an immigrant from the Soviet Union. Some weeks they went to the Catholic church in town, other times they ventured out to the Ukrainian Orthodox church on Eastern Avenue. They were pretty much the same, as Charlie saw it. Some of the saints were different, but they taught him the same core values: it didn’t matter who you were or what you did; one church or another, one line of work or another, one ethnicity or another, life was all pretty much what you made of it. He decided early on to make it big.
He started small. He got the idea when he was barely a teenager. Mid-summer days were long and pointless and even the promise of school seemed a welcome vacation from idleness. He spent his days roaming through the streets of Federal Hill—the other side of the Harbor, where people had money. On a telephone pole he saw a flyer with the picture of an ugly bulldog, contact information, and a reward amount: $100. Back then, that was a lot of money—more than Charlie’d ever seen. He spent the better part of the next few days playing pet detective, searching between rowhouses, in the parks, along the streets and in the alleyways. On the third day of his search, he surprised himself when, due more to luck than skill, he discovered the bulldog tied to a post outside one of the pubs along Charles Street. He unhitched it and ran to the first payphone he could find—the one in front of Cross Street Market.
“I found your dog,” Charlie cried.
“Oh, you must have the wrong dog. We found Kooper day before yesterday.”
Charlie was pissed. All the work with no payoff. He kicked the dog and it yelped. Then, he got the idea to keep the dog and hold it for ransom.
Sure enough, in a few days new flyers replaced the old, a picture he’d not have noticed was different, but certainly new contact information. And a new amount: $200. He called the number. “I found your dog.”
“You found Regan? That’s just great!” The woman at the other end of the line gave their address, just a few blocks over. The dog was exchanged for the money, and as easily as that, Charlie found himself richer than he’d ever been before.
He ate ice cream, took water taxis, stocked up on girlie magazines, and even conned himself some beer, whisky, and cigarettes. The money lasted him a luxurious couple weeks; then he schemed for more. He managed to coax a collie out of the park on the hill and led it out of sight, then fit it to the leash Charlie carried with him. A few days later, he exchanged the lost dog for $150. The rewards varied from a disappointing thank you and a piece of pie to an overwhelming half-grand. By the end of summer, he had more money stashed in his sock drawer than his parents had under their mattress.
Fells Point was only a short walk from Little Italy. There was a lot of action in Fells Point with all the pubs and clubs, the Broadway Market, and the restaurants. He began hanging out in the area, when he wasn’t stealing and saving rich people’s pets. When the local drug dealers tried to sell to him, he offered to sell for them. His ambition met with success. Before he knew it, he was pushing more drugs at school than some of the adult dealers were selling on the street. At sixteen, Charlie became the youngest member of the local crime ring—not including some of the prostitutes—and he discovered there was a lot more money in dealing drugs than pets.
In those days, he learned to read people. He could spot an undercover cop by the cool, guarded caution. He could weed out a nark by the fearful twitch. He knew the users from the curious by how quickly they took their purchases. Sometimes, when he stood along Broadway and the adjoining streets and watched proud people strutting by, he wanted to beat the shit out of them. Sometimes he did. Once, after a college kid threatened to tell the cops that his friend had tried to sell him a joint, Charlie was so enraged that he took things a little too far. Fortunately for Charlie, it was in an unpopulated alley and no one saw who’d beaten the poor kid to death. Guilt nearly drove Charlie out of the business, but ambition overshadowed his guilt.
The Boss found out—his spies were everywhere—and summoned Charlie. “You have a real talent for clean dirty work.” Most of the jobs the Boss gave him were just warnings: broken limbs, smashed faces, roughing up. But there were occasional hits. Charlie found it less difficult to deal with the second time around, and by his third kill, it came easily. He was sly, quick, and quiet about his work. He taught himself not to care, not to hear the pleas or cries. It wasn’t long before he’d become the Boss’s hit man of choice. Charlie didn’t enjoy it, but he was good at it, and the money couldn’t be beat.
Years later, he went his own way. He’d had enough of the violence and no longer wanted to be a full-time thug. He parted on good terms, still friends with the Boss. He parted with the understanding that he would still be called upon for favors—favors that, when done well, would be well compensated. And Charlie often came by when he wasn’t relaxing in the Keys, just to say hi to the Boss, or to see whether he could do a job or two for some extra cash. Sometimes he just stopped by to share a cigar or a joint.
Charlie was smoking in the Fells Point rowhouse on Wolfe Street the day the computer geek showed up. He’d flown in for a couple weeks to spend some time with his son and had decided to drop in. They’d gone into the Boss’s smoking chamber, the other office with lounge chairs and lava lamps instead of a desk and a computer. In the chamber, Charlie, the Boss, and a couple of other guys from the organization passed some joints around. Charlie found something special in being part of a dope ring with his Fells Point gang; there was something intimate about it. Aside from the feeling of a woman’s body next to his, it didn’t get much warmer than the feeling of a joint passed from one person to another.
“I gotta go,” the Boss said. “Gotta check on the girls. They oughta be out by now. Streets are filling up.”
“Aw, come on, Boss,” Charlie said.
“Gotta check on that whiz kid out there, too,” the Boss said.
“Invite him in,” one of the brotherhood said.
“I don’t think it’s his thing,” the other said. They all laughed.
“Not yet, anyway,” the Boss said.
“One last hit,” Charlie offered, pushing the joint in their host’s direction.
“The problem is, it’s never the last hit,” the Boss said. “It’s always supposed to be the last one, but it never is unless you make it.” He opened the door, letting out a puff of smoke that smelled even greener than it looked.
On the train, Charlie wanted to sleep, but he didn’t allow it. Intuitively, he looked back at Silverman. The whiz kid had put away his paper and was snapping the latches of his briefcase securely shut. Then he stood and walked toward the front of the car. Charlie turned discreetly around and leaned back in his seat. He watched as Silverman passed him and exited the car.
Charlie stood and followed him. As he entered the next passenger car, Silverman was exiting. Charlie hung back so as not to be seen. In one car, he had to squeeze his bulk past the conductor who was making his rounds, validating new passengers after a recent stop. Finally, he watched his target enter the observation car. Charlie stalled, buffering their entries with time.
He took out a Basic, placing the cigarette between his lips as he glanced across the car at the faces in the crowd. A few mumbles and looks from the passengers reminded him: no smoking. He grumbled and placed the cigarette behind his ear.
Silverman didn’t even notice as Charlie entered the observation car and took a seat in the opposite aisle. Charlie stared at the window. Beyond the picture window was a fantastic view of nature. They passed a small lake where a family was picnicking and a man showed his son how to cast a line. But in the glass, he could see the reflection of people in the aisle on the other side of the car. He could see the back of Silverman’s head. It didn’t take long before Silverman abandoned the observation car for the next one.
Charlie waited a moment, then entered the lounge car—more than half full already, and the day was young. On one of his better days, out in the Keys, Charlie wouldn’t even be out of bed yet. Silverman sat toward the center of the car with a cup of hot tea and his yellow legal pad. For a moment, their eyes locked and Charlie feared the kid might actually have recognized him. No. The few times we saw each other he was too scared to notice anyone but the Boss. Charlie let the moment of eye contact slide away and scanned the room. He didn’t care about these other people, but looked at each in turn in order to make his examination of Silverman seem indifferent.
He spotted a man about his age going through a leather-bound planner; a German couple drinking tea and beer; a young couple silently sipping bottled water; a soldier staring out the window, an old woman who looked like she had one foot in the grave.
Charlie ordered a black coffee, though he wanted a cigarette and a shot of bourbon. Too early to get sloppy; coffee’ll have to do. He wanted to get off the train and smoke a cigarette at the next stop, but knew he had to stay with his target.
He’d wait awhile before striking. He’d wait for the rural flatlands of middle Indiana. Then he could get off in Chicago before anyone even found the body. One last hit, and that was it.
From his seat in the corner, offering him a view of the entire lounge car, Charlie continued studying people to pass the time. He watched the gray-haired man make notes in his planner, consider them, and make more notes, looking stressed. Another man came in, escorting a retarded guy. A young man parked himself to jot lines in a spiral notebook and a woman sat with tearful eyes, reading a paper she kept taking in and out of her purse. He wondered whether the red stones on her dragonfly broach had any value. A woman with a tattoo decorating her lower back looked just slutty enough to work for the Boss.
Charlie watched these people, all in their own little worlds, some intermingling, others completely isolated and unaware of his intruding eyes. Charlie wondered where they came from and where they were headed. Most people went through life clueless. They had no idea they were being watched and scrutinized, whether by a guy like him or a con man, a telemarketer or a boss. Most people were oblivious to the dangers all around them. But that wasn’t Charlie’s concern. Only one destiny concerned him: Silverman had to die before this train reached Chicago.