Episode 13 - "Escapade on the Orient
Pandora Pitstop had ridden through the night; she was riding still. She could
not rest, sleep eluded her, so she just didn't bother. Neither did she eat.
She stopped only for fuel, sometimes hammering it out of sleepy and protesting
gas station attendants, before flinging money at them and roaring onwards,
ever south towards Spain. Her exhaust pipe glowed, her engine protested,
but she flogged the Enfield, was almost part of it: a gaunt, hollow-eyed
shadow astride her gleaming bike.
The sky had begun to show a smear of rose in the East, casting long shadows
across the highway. No other traffic passed her. Had her mind been less preoccupied,
she might have noted how surreal everything looked in the dawn half-light,
yet her life as it now was far surpassed any such dreamlike scenery. She knew
Maman Noir had damned her, she could feel it growing every day, and could feel
less and less of anything else. But her character and force of will drove her
on. She would still win this race, and she would defeat the gypsy's curse.
She would. She must.
The shadows were long. The engine was loud. Her mind was preoccupied, but some
instinct for self-preservation screamed at her; almost automatically, she wrenched
the Enfield into a skid, nearly losing the bike sideways, and slithered to
a halt inches before the unmarked level crossing that her unconscious mind
had seen. Not a moment too soon. A diesel locomotive exploded out of the darkness
with a noise like Hell, only a few meters from Pandora’s face. The carriage
lights strobed in her eyes, the train's passing shook the ground and filled
her senses with its awful speed and presence. She sat on her bike, immobile,
as it passed, and her memory reeled backwards, as she remembered another time
and another train in the twilight . . .
Pandora had just left Potzdorf with the Empress’ jewels
and forged travel documents, and was now on a train headed
Pandora gave her earrings one final admiring glance in the
mirror: “Mmm . . . yes, quality always tells,” she
thought; they were much better worn (by her) than pawned
to keep that louse von Stuppe in a mortgaged state! And besides,
no one was likely to recognize them outside Potzdorf. A good
result all round, eh? “Thanks Queenie.” She smiled
to herself, remembering that ridiculous poker game a few
Turning this way and that, Pandora examined the rest of her ensemble: a classic
royal blue and black devore silk velvet Poiret ensemble, with matching kimono
blouse and culottes. Stylish as ever, girl, she thought to herself. With a
deep breath of triumph, Pandora sallied forth for the restaurant car.
Gabriel felt rather chipper. Creditors successfully eluded
(he’d settle as soon as he could anyway), unknown adventure
calling on the most de luxe of trains . . . and having nothing
more pressing to worry about, he felt that a bite of dinner
would be just the ticket. He examined himself in the glass: “Hmm
. . . stiff front: spotless. White tie: just so. No buttonhole
-- oh well that will pass.” He shot his cuffs, and
gloves in hand, opened the door of his cabin.
At that moment, the train rounded a sharp curve and, as fortune would have
it, the momentum pitched Gabriel into Pandora’s path. He straightened
himself briskly, and smiled deprecatingly at the lady before him.
“ I say, I do beg your pardon,” he apologized, “Rather tricky
set of points. I do hope I didn’t hurt you?”
Pandora chuckled. “Not at all,” and gave Gabriel a brisk up and
down: “Nice manners, well turned out, obviously educated, vintage style
-- this could be interesting.” She smiled winningly. “I was about
to dine, and I don’t know a soul. Join me?” Charmed, Gabriel offered
his arm, Pandora slipped hers through his, and they went in to dinner.
As Pandora seated herself opposite Gabriel in their dining
booth, he glanced at her. The lady’s earrings glittered
dazzlingly under the soft pink lights, and his mental loot-evaluation
processes whirred. Wonderful diamond drops -- old, certainly,
18th century. Large, rough-cut stones; heavy, old-gold settings
-- worth an absolute mint! Had he fewer manners, he would
have whistled -- but the lady might have misconstrued that
as a comment on her bosom. He took his own seat as the maitre
d’ glided up and served them.
First-name introductions were made over aperitifs. Small talk took place over
the soup. Travels were discussed with the main course, and by dessert, the
diners were easy enough in each other’s company to discuss themselves
but only in the vaguest of detail.
Pandora was enjoying herself. She rather liked this Gabriel: charming, courteous,
and with a ready wit, he commented knowledgeably on the wines. Once or twice,
however, she noticed him looking at her oddly, as though he was trying to remember
something. She wondered if he was a government agent or something like; after
all, she had just made off with a small hoard courtesy of the Empress of Carpania.
“ Curiouser and curiouser,” Pandora thought, smiling into her glass, “Now
what, I wonder, is going through your mind?”
Gabriel, frankly, was captivated -- and not just by the earrings. There was
. . . something . . . about his companion he couldn’t quite place. “Somewhere,” he
thought, “I’ve seen you before.” Gosh, those really were
Gabriel proposed a toast to a pleasant journey ahead. Pandora clinked glasses
mechanically: although nothing obvious was wrong, her well-honed sense of self-preservation
was beginning to twitch . . .
“ You know,” she began slowly, prying for information, “I have
the strangest feeling I know you from somewhere. You remind me of someone. We
haven’t met, have we?”
“ I’m sure I would remember,” Gabriel essayed gallantly. Pandora
gave him a sidelong smile. There was something disturbingly familiar about his
manner or perhaps the timbre of his voice. It was maddening that she couldn’t
place it. She was uncomfortable. Her earrings were heavy and made her ears hurt,
and as Gabriel ordered liqueurs she unhooked them, laid them on the napery, and
absent-mindedly rubbed her lobes.
This did not go unnoticed however, and old habits doing their best to die hard,
Gabriel noted the exact position of the jewels and calculated the distance
to the door. It wasn’t that he particularly enjoyed the thought of robbing
his dining partner -- in fact he hated the idea -- but the last of his wealth
had gone with the train ticket. He had standards to maintain, and a title only
got you so much credit abroad. Unless he got some cash in the bank, he would
end up a beggar in some Austrian gutter. The thought made him shiver. Even
more disturbingly, however, his sharp eyes had caught something else: a small
gold signet ring on Pandora’s right hand; black enamel with a gold snake
in striking pose.
His gaze flicked nervously to her face -- he was breaking
bread with a member of the Assassins’ Guild! “Things,” he
decided, “could become frightfully sticky here. However,
those rocks would be very useful currency, and what’s
more, I don’t think she paid for them somehow. They
look so like some I saw in Cartier’s Special Comms.
Chart at Magdalen . . . Oh well, here goes . . .”
“ Looks like a tunnel coming up,” Pandora commented, conversation
having lagged on both sides.
“ Now or never, Gabriel,” the man resolved. The Express thundered
into the tunnel, the lights faltered, and the carriage was briefly plunged into
darkness. Pandora felt something brush past her. The train’s sconces lit
up again and she found herself alone. Her palm slapped automatically over her
discarded earrings -- too late! They, and Gabriel, had gone. The door at the
end of the carriage was swinging. “You little . . .!” She swore,
leapt to her feet, and, elbowing the drinks-laden waiter aside, tore off in pursuit.
Gabriel, hot ice burning a hole in his pocket, wove his
way with murmured apology towards his cabin. But Fortune
is fickle, and he found the corridor ahead blocked by the
Chef de Train, and, curiously, a pair of policemen in Carpanian
uniform. Nothing for it but UP. Taking a deep breath, he
slipped unnoticed through the communicating door and climbed
swiftly to the roof. Long inured to aerial lunacy as a result
of his curious profession, a little trot along the carriage
roof in the gathering dusk at 70 m.p.h., while not necessarily
the greatest fun in the world, was at least within his capabilities.
“ Just take it steady, boy,” he muttered.
Pandora was in time to see Gabriel’s silhouette disappear over the edge
of the roof and decided to take the shorter route. She, too, saw that the corridor
was blocked, but head down and teeth set, she charged through the police and
train staff, and high-tailed it along the corridor through the carriages to
cut off the swine’s escape. She swung herself through the communicating
door at the opposite end of the carriage and hauled herself up the ladder to
the roof. She ducked just in time as Gabriel, oblivious to her presence, leapt
the gap between the two cars. Pandora grabbed for his ankle and missed. She
half-slipped, ripping the left leg of her culottes up to her thigh. She swore
at Gabriel for that alone!
Gabriel was endeavoring to take it carefully while thinking fast. He must reach
his cabin to collect his meager belongings (sword cane, clean collars, etc.)
and get off this train -- quick! They were nearing Vienna and being discovered
on the roof when they pulled into the station would undoubtedly end up with
him in a cell, with a pocketful of stolen property. For his sake, and also,
strangely it seemed to him, Pandora’s -- he didn’t want them both
in chokey in a foreign country. He certainly didn’t want to share a cell
with a vengeful hellspite! He glanced back at the way he’d come and cursed.
She was behind him! He swung round: as he suspected, he had run out of train
-- Gabriel was cornered! Slowly, he straightened up. He really didn’t
want to have to strike her . . .
Having no such scruples herself and smiling grimly, Pandora advanced, flexing
her knuckles. “Such a shame,” she thought, “but if he likes
to play rough, I’m game.”
Gabriel watched her approach. Garments snapping in the wind and raven hair
rising like Medusa, he couldn’t help thinking, “God, you look fetching,
girl.” He almost began to wish that he hadn’t been so itchy fingered.
“ Got you now, you thieving bastard,” Pandora began, preparing to
spring. However, as 3-inch Louis heels were not necessarily intended for train
roofs, the unsuitably attired virago found herself slipping sideways, and with
a shriek she slipped over the edge.
For Pandora, time seemed to move like molasses. Her feet slipped from under
her and she slid unstoppably on her behind over the curve of the roof. Frantically,
her fingers scrabbled for purchase but could find none. Her nails broke. She
knew Death was approaching.
Suddenly, a vice-like grip clamped on her right
wrist, as Gabriel, diving full length, managed to grab her,
and she swung, buffeted by the gale, inches from death under
the thundering steel wheels. Her eyes met those of the man.
The look she gave spoke volumes.
Gabriel looked into her pleading eyes. The sad thought flashed across his mind: “I
don’t even know what color they are,” and then he had a somber
vision. Recognizing her lethal profession, he just knew he’d wake the
following morning to find the pillow next to him empty and arsenic in his tea.
He clearly understood one thing: “It was her or me.” Torn, he looked
at Pandora again, and despite her desperate pleas, closed his eyes . . . and
imperceptibly loosened his grip.
“ No!” she cried, as her fingers slipped through his; spasmodically,
his fingers clutched again, but too late! Her signet ring came off in his grasp,
and the woman vanished into the steam and dark. He heard his name fade in the
distance as she disappeared down the steep, overgrown verge.
Aghast at what he had done, Gabriel crouched on the rooftop. Self-preservation
alone made him move. Climbing down, he re-entered the train and swiftly returned
to his cabin. He changed his soiled clothing and, needing a stiff drink, headed
to the bar area of the dining car. Seating himself in the darkest corner, he
gazed at the ring still in his grasp. “Could I have been wrong?” he
asked himself. Not knowing what else to do with the signet ring, slowly and
with a sigh, he placed it on the smallest finger of his right hand and ordered
two double martinis. One, because he now recalled that her eyes were ocean
blue, deep and troubled like the Atlantic. The other, so that he could forget.
He didn’t think alcohol would be enough somehow. He knocked both drinks
back and abandoned the bar for the smoking platform. Unclipping his silver
cigarette case, he deposited the fateful earrings and selected an “oval” cigarette,
and as he inhaled the first puff of opium-scented smoke, gazed into the dusk.
In the distance was a collection of colorful tents -- looking like a carnival
and garish against the mist-laden valley. The lights twinkled as the night
closed in. “Vienna soon,” he reflected bitterly, “and no
one to waltz with . . .”