The rain hammered with a million fists on the roof of the carriage and occasionally a grumble of thunder would rattle the windows. That was outside. Inside, more time passed in relative silence.
Jordan regained his bench seat, sat heavily upon it wondering what stroke of fate had brought the stranger into their midst. Across the carriage, only six feet but feeling like six miles, Melvin sat rigid on his own bunk. His hand was still within the folds of his cloak but the search had long since lost its intensity. He was quiet, though. Jordan had to be thankful for that given Melvin’s poor performance previously with the conductor.
Presently the stranger was still occupying the No Man’s Land in the centre of the carriage, standing in a slowly spreading pool of water. Two minutes had passed since his dramatic entrance and he was yet to move or even speak. The time was ample for Jordan to turn a critical eye over his new carriage mate.
The man was tall but gave a lot of this height away by the fact that he was hunched over. In fact, his left shoulder appeared to be hanging down lower than the right. The cloak billowed over a body that was sparse in a similar way to Melvin’s body. Unlike Melvin though, the stranger carried an air of foreboding, of danger. He was still and looked frail, but mayhap such looks were deceiving. After all, does not the prettiest rose have thorns to pierce one’s flesh?
A hood covered the man’s face. All Jordan could see was the suggestion of an eye, the hook of a nose. A few loose tangles of hair, silver in the dancing light of the lantern, dangled lugubriously in the air, with beads of moisture dripping from their split ends. The hair was so tangled that Jordan wondered when was the last time the man had bothered to wash it. There was a smell, a rich, earthy smell that wasn’t at all unpleasant. It wasn’t the stink of the street brat or the pungent odour of the boozehound or even the rancid milk stench of old, withered men.
Across the carriage, Melvin watched as intently as Jordan did. His reconnoitre wasn’t as subtle as Jordan’s. Jordan suspected, too, that he was conducting his for an entirely different purpose. Indeed, the hand at the front of the cloak began to fidget slightly, blind fingers furrowing through large fabric tunnels in search of their lethal payload. As Jordan watched Melvin, the boys tongue flicked snake-like from his lips… once… twice… and a third time. The hand movements abruptly ceased. The weapon had been located.
Jordan looked away very briefly, returned his gaze to the newcomer. He changed his perspective, looked at the stranger from the perspective of a cutpurse. His eyes noted the battered suitcase that the man had laboured to move. It was made from vinyl, its surface battered and scuffed. There was a huge dent in one end of it and one of the reinforcing corners was missing. On the side facing Jordan there was a sticker. It proudly told the world that this suitcase was not yours. Underneath the slogan was a caricature of a smiling face, coloured yellow. The sticker was bright and sickly, brand new, in direct opposition to not only the rest of the suitcase but the sodden stranger as well. A cutpurse would want to know what was inside the case to make it seem so heavy. They’d spare not a single thought for the fact that the person carrying it could be a cripple. Well, that was a lie. They’d have noticed that, but in terms of how easy a target it would make them. No, the suitcase would be heavy because it would be full of valuable stuff. The stranger would be given a cursory glancing over. Hunched back, crooked shoulders. The cripple factor. Easy game. The cloak wouldn’t be worth much… not wet anyway. The boots looked older than Time itself, and thus, would be worthless.
If Jordan were a cutpurse, he’d surprise the stranger from behind, push his stiletto between the man’s ribs and rip a hole in either a lung or his heart, then ease him to the floor, taking care to avoid getting blood on either himself or the suitcase. If done right, the victim died quickly and without a violent struggle that sprays blood every which way.
Jordan narrowed his eyes, focussed on Melvin. Melvin, ignorant of his partner’s surveillance, confirmed in Jordan’s mind that he was in the cutpurse mindset. He was waiting for the right moment to strike.
In his wildest dreams, he’d have never betted that the stranger would present the opportunity almost straight away. But present it he did.
The stranger craned his head around, the first movement he made in what must be steadily climbing to five minutes. He looked but didn’t really notice the kid, maybe just noticing the youth in the boy’s cheeks, and the boy’s pathetic attempt at facial hair. At length, he turned his whole body around to regard Jordan. The process looked quite painful, with lots of jerking movements and abrupt pauses. It took about twenty seconds to accomplish that meagre task. Then the man spoke.
“Is that bunk taken?”
The voice was soft, barely above a whisper and yet both Jordan and Melvin felt compelled to listen. The question was directed at Jordan, but with a flick of his head and a roll of his eyes, he revealed that the bunk he was referring to was the one Melvin occupied. For a moment, Jordan was lost in the man’s eyes. They were dark. In the lantern light, Jordan could have sworn that they were as black as coal. And how they stared, pinning Jordan to his seat better than iron manacles. The face was lined but not so much with age than experience, for it was still a youngish face. The crows feet around his eyes and the valleys etched into the sides of his mouth weren’t blemishes of long ago decades but the birth children of many hours in the extremes of hot and cold.
“I… I guess not,” Jordan replied. He was surprised that he stammered his response. Surprise quickly gave way to anger. What was it about this man that tweaked his senses?
Melvin shuffled on his bunk, eyes searching. His gaze alternated between the two other men he shared the carriage with presently. He was trying to interpret body language, to garner meaning from what Jordan’s hopefully impassive gaze was telling him, and what the stranger’s back turned to him meant. But nothing was forthcoming. Melvin may as well have been reading his train ticket; it would have given as much meaning to him as his first real experience in people reading. Jordan should have been happier with this outcome but instead found himself wanting.
The stranger’s smile drew the gouges at the side of his mouth ever deeper. There were teeth. Lots of teeth, like little pearls glistening moist in an oyster. A tongue flicked between those teeth, a subtle flash of pink. Melvin moved. A barely perceptible twitch. Jordan barely had time to even blink.
This is it, he thought, and even that thought was incomplete.
He expected to see blood, dark like ink in the lantern light. The stranger’s first, and should Melvin like the taste for the kill, Jordan’s second. He vaguely wondered if he’d even feel the pain as the keen edge of the knife opened up his throat.
Melvin’s blade never even left the confines of his billowing cloak. The stranger was staring at Jordan the whole time, his head moved not an inch, his eyes didn’t even blink. When he spoke, it was in the same smooth and glacial manner he’d used to enquire about the bunk. Only this time, he had raised his hand, his index finger pointing toward the restless sky.
“Tell your friend to rest his stiletto,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the pounding rain but seemingly without raising his voice.
Melvin jerked to a halt, his mouth open into a useless ‘O,’ through which no sound passed. He stayed like that for a few seconds, crucial seconds. Thoughts of what he could be doing played in his mind. Jordan could read those by the way the young buck’s eyebrows danced up and down. He tried to enlist Jordan in his musings but Jordan’s face was a mask. Even though he was still on his bunk, he seemed to move down and sit in it some more.
“Wise choice,” the stranger quipped. Then he dropped a wink in Jordan’s direction.