Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maps

One day it's gonna happen
I don't know when
I'll be on your street
But I know one day it's gonna happen
You're gonna be swept off your feet

“Street Map” – Athlete

Lanie
Some people believe in fate and destiny. Others are content to just keep their heads down and live day to day. There is no cosmic meaning, no feeling of being special, just existing. This was something that Lanie could never do. From a little girl on, she couldn’t be like everyone else. She was always different. No matter where she was, she never felt like she was at home. This restlessness of spirit seemed like it would haunt her forever.

In her mind, she was searching for something. A gifted painter, she would spend hours pouring her heart and soul onto the canvas. This talent was her release. In some ways, it saved her. While her peers were fumbling their way to ecstasy in the dark, she was always concentrating on her work. Affairs of the heart were a mystery.

When she tried to be like everyone else, the results were usually disastrous. While at college she engaged in flirtations that went nowhere. Then she met Derek, a handsome, aloof art student like her. They fell in love at first sight and began spending every moment together. Eventually, it felt hollow and more like an obligation, a way to pass the time. Finally, on a snowy night, she quietly slipped out of his apartment and out of his life.

She had resigned herself to the fact that she would be alone. Her art became her great love. She didn’t mind the hours spent in her studio creating because that was life to her. The path she felt that she was on was difficult and worrisome. Every time she turned around she heard, “Artists don’t make any money." "How do you expect to live?" "When are you going to settle down and do something more practical?”

Feeling claustrophobic, she packed up and trekked halfway across the country. This was the adventure of a lifetime for her. Camping underneath the stars, the road stretched before her like an endless horizon. It was time.

Jake
There was nothing exceptional about Jake. He was a typical boy growing up in a suburban dream. He was never one to sit still, he always had to be doing something. Unfortunately, this tendency caused him to get into various levels of trouble. When he wasn’t running around his neighborhood creating a ruckus of some sort, he was writing stories about distant lands and alien worlds.

The older he became the more confused he was about the nuances of the opposite sex and romance. His friends were dating but he preferred to spend his time creating characters and adventures in his head. He would look at the couples at his high school and think that someday it might be nice to fall in love.

Instead of following in the footsteps of his friends and family, Jake opted to get a job so that he could spend his free time writing. In his heart, he knew that was his ticket out of his current life. For a while, he thought he was in love and was even contemplating marriage. Sabrina was everything a man could ask for. She was beautiful and engaging with a smile that lit up every room she entered. Jake was entranced.

He had planned how he was going to ask her to marry him. It was going to be perfect. More than willing to give up his dreams for her, Jake was ready to settle down. The magical night came and under the moon by the lake he proposed. Sabrina looked at the ring and promptly turned him down. She wanted more out of life than he could give her.

Crushed, Jake ended his relationship with her. For months, he was inconsolable. The words that never eluded him were nowhere to be found and the silence was heart wrenching. One night after too much to drink, he made a decision. He was going to leave. It was time.


The City
Lanie had taken a job in an art gallery. She could be around what she loved the most and make valuable connections. As far as she was concerned it was a win-win scenario.

Every now and then, when she allowed herself to think, a deep sadness would consume her. Some nights when she couldn’t sleep, she would stand on her terrace and look up at the stars. It was as if she were making a wish that her heart didn’t realize yet. She didn’t know when, she didn’t know why but she felt like something was going to happen.

The Mountains
The view that Jake awoke to every morning was amazing. Snowcapped mountains, trees for days it soothed his soul. He was enjoying working in the outdoors and using his hands to build houses for people. It kept his mind from wandering.

His nights were full of words tumbling from his head and on to blank pages. The book he was writing took on a life of its own. On those rare moments when his thoughts were silent, he found himself looking at the beautiful night sky. As hard as he tried, he could not shake this feeling that he was searching for something that he didn’t know he lost. One day, he thought. One day it’s going to happen.

The Art Life
In her spare time, Lanie found herself painting like her life depended on it. She had convinced the gallery to display some of her work. This was the chance she had dreamed of since she was a young girl. Something was gnawing at her. Figuring it was nerves, she decided to go away for a couple of days to clear her head.

She had always enjoyed being outdoors. One of her coworker’s parents had a cabin in the woods. Armed with a trusty map, she headed for the snowcapped mountains on the distant horizon. The closer she got to the forest, the more at ease she became. For the first time in months, she smiled.

By the time she reached her destination, the sun was fading. Tired from her journey, she immediately fell asleep when her head hit the pillow.

The Writer’s Life
Jake woke up feeling rested and happy. He hadn’t felt this way in a long time. With a cup of coffee in his hand, he looked out at the sun coming up over the mountain range. The trees were blowing with the light breeze.

As he looked around, a sense of calm enveloped him. Today felt good. It felt right. For the first time in months, he smiled.

The Drawing  
Lanie had made the climb to the best view in her entire life. In awe of the beauty before her, she took in the mountains and the tree tops. The light was perfect. Sitting on a rock, she pulled her sketchbook from her backpack.

When she looked up, she saw him standing on a ledge slightly below her vantage point. Her breath caught in her throat. She studied him for a moment, with her pencil poised above the paper.
His broad shoulders were straight as he gazed at something in the distance. She could see his dark hair softly blowing in the wind. His profile was strong and she felt her heart skip a beat. She began to draw.

The Ledge
Feeling a sense of accomplishment, Jake was quite proud of pushing himself. He knew this path like the back of his hand from hiking every day. The view was quite spectacular. It was moments like this that made everything worthwhile.

Taking a deep breath, he looked around. At that moment, he saw her, sitting on the rock. The way the light hit her looked like she had a halo around her.

The Moment
Lifting her head, Lanie looked at the figure to find that he was looking right at her. Startled, she didn’t know quite what to do. Her hands suddenly became clammy and she shivered slightly. Why did she think she knew him?

Something about the curves of his face struck her as hauntingly familiar. After a moment, he turned away and headed down the path. Lanie’s heart sank. She looked down at the drawing.

The Show
Lanie decided to sell the drawing of her mystery man. It was her best work and she was very proud of it. The show was very successful and the drawing was purchased by an agent. She gave Lanie her card and they agreed to a meeting later in the week.

For a moment, she was ecstatic but then she felt a twinge at the thought of not keeping her picture.

The Destination
Although she was a successful artist, public appearances were still awkward for Lanie. She always felt as if she were on display. The good part was that this particular function was at the home of her close friend and agent for many years. It was time to start living again.

Lanie had stopped painting for a while to take care of her longtime companion.  After a lengthy illness, he died in her arms. She was still grieving. Her heart was broke and it felt like it would never heal. The feeling like she was missing something never left her. Her soul was lost.

She walked around and looked at the various paintings on the walls pausing to stop at her drawing of the man on the ledge. A smile formed on her lips. After all these years, she could still see him standing there in the sunshine.

Behind her she heard her agent and another voice.  

“Lanie?”

Lanie turned around and found herself face to face with an older version of the man in her drawing. Although his hair was greying, she would have known him anywhere.

The moment Jake looked in Lanie’s eyes, he saw the girl on the rock with her notebook. Even though the light was bright, he carried the image of her in his mind for many years. She was older but still as beautiful as he had imagined her.

“Lanie, this is Jake Matthews.”

“Jake Matthews, the writer?”

Jake smiled.  “Yes.”

All Lanie could do was stare at him. “I have read all of your books.”

“I love your paintings. As a matter of fact, I own a couple.”

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

Lanie turned around and pointed to the picture.

“Is this you?”

Both Jake and Lanie’s agent looked at the drawing. After a brief pause, Jake turned around to face Lanie.

“It’s me.”

Jake extended his hand to her.

“Nice to finally meet you, Lanie.”

Lanie placed her hand in his and as Jake encircled it with his own, she felt at peace. She had finally reached her destination.

  



Friday, March 10, 2017

Penance


When I woke up, it was hard to imagine what the hell could have happened. The room was a chaotic mess. Dingy, dirty walls and those televisions…when I started to try to remember how I got here, my head felt as if a dagger was being shoved into my brain.

Better stop trying to make sense of it all. I closed my eyes and laid back on the bed. Oh, Christ. How long had it been since these sheets had been washed? How many fuck fests took place? Worse yet, how many murders? I shivered and against my better judgment, I fell into a troubled sleep.

Rain. So much of it pouring down from the sky. Neon signs. Just a flash and then I was once again in the deluge, this time in a small town that felt familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. Then I saw you. It was your silhouette but I would know you anywhere. My heart began to hurt, the old familiar pain. Like I was being torn in two from the inside out.

Sweat drenched, I sat straight up in bed screaming at the top of my lungs. Scared, cold, disoriented, I stared around the room. An old television set from a bygone time was playing some ancient movie. The more I looked at the screen, I could see that it wasn’t a film per se but it was like a memory.  Shaking my head and closing my eyes, I whispered, “I don’t want to see this. Please, don’t make me relive it.”

This moment had the feeling of an 8-mm film scene. The colors were slightly faded like an old Polaroid picture. Smiling, I looked at the gathering of people like extras milling about in a production. Slowly, they parted and I saw you standing by the railing. Our eyes met and from that moment I knew. You excused yourself and made your way toward me. Before you could get there, you were stopped by someone but your eyes never left mine.

Finally, you reached me and held out your hand. The TV screen went black. The pounding in my head won’t go away. What the hell happened? Did I fall out of a building and smash onto a sidewalk?
I laid down and closed my eyes. A wave of nausea slammed into me. I swallowed deeply. Breathing stabilized, I drifted off.  Transported to another dimension or another time? I couldn’t decide but I could see that crystal blue ocean with its frothy waves lapping against the beach. Turning slowly, I heard you call my name.

“Penny for your thoughts.”

I shielded my eyes from the sun’s glare. Smiling that brilliant smile, bathed in its warmth, I felt truly seen in that moment.  Everything faded in an instant until all that was left was that image of you burned into my brain. How, I loved you, that most perfect part of you that only I could see, that only I knew about.  You kept that person under lock and key but you allowed me in.

Those days of sunshine were full of promise and hope. All that ever was and all that would ever be. I would have walked to the ends of the earth for you and with you. Perhaps you knew that and used it to your advantage or used me to your advantage. Damn it! There it comes again. That freight train screaming through my brain. Piercing noise, make it stop!

Tossing and turning, I held my hands over my ears. Trying to wake up but being held under the waves of slumber by unseeing hands. Pulling me even further into nothingness, darkness, this time. At least, it is a break from the unrelenting pain.

No such luck! Another fucking television turns itself on again. It’s cathode rays tumble over me, giving me a slightly blue hue to match my soul or what is left of it. I try to ignore it but I can’t. My eyes fly open and I have no recourse but to watch what is happening.

The moonlight spills over you in the stillness of the desert night. Stars as far as our eyes could see up in the heavens. Your heartbeat and breathing were the only sounds I could hear. You held my very essence in the palm of your hand. Through one act, we exchanged souls forever bound together as one.

I cried. The type of tears that come from deep inside when your world is imploding. Earth shattering sobs. What have I done? Why did you leave me here alone? I can’t do this by myself.
The picture fades to a tiny dot on the screen. Curling into the fetal position, I wished for the sleep of the dead. Even with my eyes closed, all I can see is your face. I know every line, every curve. Please let me rest.

“In dreams, I walk with you,” is what Roy Orbison tells me. For that is all that remains. I stare out the window at the darkened trees. The smell of stale sweat clings to me. How long have I been here? I wonder. Hours, days, weeks, months, years?

Life was perfection, the time spent with you. Every minute of every day was sacred. The passion that bound us together in this life somehow tore us apart. “If I could start again, a million miles away,” blares on my internal radio in Johnny Cash’s voice. Although you left me standing, bleeding, naked at the side of the road, I still loved you. God help me but I did.

Now, the light has been turned on. The white-hot brain pain has subsided and I am remembering. Although I would rather live in ignorance.

Rain again. Streaming down from the sky in torrents. Something happened, maybe it was gradual but I felt you moving away from me. Long stretches of lonely nights and complicated explanations. You could never hide from me. No matter how hard you tried.

One night when you were sleeping, I heard you whisper a name. Softly, like a kiss from the wind. It wasn’t mine. At first, I felt numb. The shock hadn’t hit me. Then without warning, the tears began to fall. My anger began to build. How did this happen? How could I be so stupid?

Master of deceit that you are, forever the consummate actor, you played your part to perfection. So, loving, so dutiful but I knew that you were burning inside. That flame was growing while mine was being extinguished.

When I saw the two of you together, all I felt was betrayal. I could be just like you. I am just like you. I know all of your secrets and all of your tricks. I played along and let you believe that I was oblivious. Waiting in the shadows for you to break off the last piece of my heart.

That night. The rain. My pleading fell on deaf ears. You left me with a fractured soul and nothing to lose.  You didn’t know it but I followed you. Oh yes, I knew where you were going. I wasn’t that foolish.

In that deluge, I stood outside looking in at what was mine, what would always be mine. It was then I knew this life was not worth it if this is where I was meant to be. The rain kept thundering down from the sky and I stood silent and still. Watching. Waiting.

When it grew quiet, I knew what I had to do. See, I knew you had a key. I made a duplicate. You had no idea. This plan of mine was rather brilliant.

I crept inside. Instinctively, I knew where to go. Tracking you was never a problem. Opening the door very carefully, I peered in. Then tentatively, I made my way forward.

Did you feel me watching you, I wondered? We were so intertwined you and I. Your breathing was deep so I knew you had passed the threshold into blissful unawareness. That is when I drew my blade.

Transfixed at its silvery glow, I steadied myself. Creeping toward you, I made sure that I was the last person you would see before you left this mortal coil. Raising the knife, using all the anger, sadness and bitterness inside of me, I found strength I didn’t know I had. Plunging the blade deep within your chest, I pierced your heart. You didn’t even get the chance to scream.

After extracting my weapon, I glided silently toward the sleeping form next to you. This one might prove to be difficult but I was going to make certain that it was felt. Sitting down softly on the bed, I looked at her. Nothing special. I touched her face.

She opened her eyes. Too late, love. I sliced her throat wide open. Blood began gushing out almost like the rain that was pouring down from the heavens. I looked at you one last time. All the memories came rushing by me at once. Every smile, every touch, all of your love and then I felt nothing.

I returned to my home where the final act awaited. What good was anything now? Why would I want to remain in a place devoid of color? Sitting on my bed, I took my knife. Turning it around in my hands, no point in losing momentum. In one quick motion, I stabbed myself in the heart just like I had studied. Proper placement is key.

The pain was fleeting and was replaced by a comforting blackness that began to embrace me.  That is when I woke up in this hellhole. Forever being tormented by my memories and my undying love for you. This is my penance and I cannot escape.  



Monday, January 23, 2017

Attaché to Amour


As Nattie sat in the dining car she looked at the fresh, clean linen table napkins with wonder. All of them had been neatly folded into swans. Who takes the time to do that? A better question would be who has the time to do all that? As she pondered this dilemma, she turned her attention toward the world passing by her. She wondered just how long it would take for her to resume a normal life. Or was that even possible at this point?

After Max met his untimely demise at the hands of Mr. Lucky, it was suggested that Nattie might want to consider a change of scenery or face the same fate. Maybe if she would have asked more questions, she wouldn’t find herself on a train headed for Phoenix.

“Hello, Miss. Would you care to start your evening with a cocktail?”

Her thoughts interrupted, Nattie looked up at the non-descript, doughy faced young man.
“Yes, I would. Tom Collins, please.”

The waiter nodded and disappeared.

“Hello. Is this seat taken?”

Rolling her eyes, Nattie opened her mouth to object but was immediately silenced by the handsome face before her.

“No. It’s not.”

The man sat down directly across from her. His dark eyes glinted with good humor.

“This place seems to be filling up. I hope I’m not intruding.”

“No, not at all.”

“I’m Jack. Jack Brewster.” He offered his hand to Nattie. She immediately took it.

“Natalie Price. Nattie for short.”

“Pleased to me you, Nattie.” He smiled. This was the greatest thing Nattie had seen in weeks. His entire face lit up. She noticed a slight dimple in his left cheek.  Maybe this excursion was going to turn out alright after all, Nattie thought.

Jack was immediately taken with Nattie’s angelic good looks. The fact that she was curvy in all the right places was merely a bonus. There was something very dark hiding behind her baby blues and Jack found himself wanting to get to the bottom of it.

The waiter returned with Nattie’s Tom Collins. Placing it on the coaster in front of her, he turned his attention to Jack. “I didn’t know you had a guest, Miss. Can I get you anything from the bar, Sir?”

“Yes, you can. I would like three fingers of your best 30-year-old Single Malt Scotch.”

“Right away, Sir.”

“I like a man with specific tastes. So, tell me, Jack Brewster. What is it you do for a living?”

“I’m a salesman.”

“Really? You don’t seem like the type.”

“Want to see my card?” Jack reaches into his inner jacket pocket and hands his card to Nattie.

Nattie studies the card for a moment. She slips it into her purse.

“Impressive credentials.”

The waiter returns with Jack’s Scotch and places it on the coaster in front of him.

“Would either of you care for a menu?”

It takes a moment before Jack shifts his focus from Nattie.

“I can’t speak for the lady, but I’m doing fine.”

“So am I.”

Nodding, the waiter leaves their table.

“Where were we?”

“I think we were discussing my impressive credentials.”

“Right. Are you traveling on business, I presume?”

“Yes. I’m heading to Los Angeles. What’s your destination?”

“Phoenix. I’m visiting family.”

Jack takes a sip of his drink.  “There is a Mr. Price. I am assuming.”

“You would be assuming incorrectly.”

“This conversation keeps getting better and better.”

“Maybe. Providing there isn’t a Mrs. Brewster nearby.”

“I left her in Michigan.”

“Oh.” For a slight second, disappointment registers all over Nattie’s face. She tries to mask it by taking a sip of her cocktail.

“My mother hates to travel.”

“Too bad. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

All of a sudden, a gentleman carrying an attaché case makes his way down the aisle and almost collides with Jack.

“Hey, Pal. Why don’t you watch where you’re going with that attaché case?”

“My apologies, Sir. Good evening, Miss.”

Jack gazes after the man as he makes his way into the other car.

“Do you know him?”

“Nah. Besides your family, what’s in Phoenix? Do you have a job?”

“No. I just needed a …change, I guess.”

“Are you from Phoenix?”

“No, I’m from Philadelphia.”

“Philadelphia! Lovely city. I go there quite frequently.”

Nattie shivers.

“Cold?”

“A little.”

“I have an idea. Why don’t I freshen our drinks and I will meet you in the observation car? Say ten minutes?”

“Sure.”

Smiling, Jack exited from the table and headed toward the bar. 

Who was this mystery man, Nattie wondered as she pulled her compact from her purse? Powdering her nose quickly, she pursed her lips debating on whether or not to reapply new lipstick. Deciding against it, Nattie put the compact away. She was feeling decidedly giddy and slightly flushed. Something about the way Jack looked at her set her heart on fire. Normally she was usually cool and reserved but this man got under her skin.

Jack found the observation car was sparsely occupied. As luck would have it, he was able to procure two rather luxurious looking chairs in a sequestered section in the back of the car. He sat down and placed the two drinks on the table and proceeded to wait for the lovely Nattie.

She was a looker. Not to mention, she had legs for days. In reality, he loved her eyes. They were as blue as the sky and he found himself having to resist the urge to kiss her soft mouth.  At that precise moment, he looked up and saw Nattie making her way toward him. When she reached the table, he stood up.

“I thought maybe you might have reconsidered my offer.”

“That is a fair enough assessment. I barely know you.”

“That is why I suggested we go someplace a little less …”

“Occupied?”

“Exactly! You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Nattie brought her glass to her lips. Locking eyes with Jack, she took a sip.

“Tell me, Jack Brewster. What is waiting for you in Los Angeles?”

“I am about to close an incredible deal that I have been working on for months. If it goes through, I’ll be on Easy Street for years to come.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“I don’t mean to pry but Phoenix just doesn’t seem like it would suit you.”

“Now, why would you say that? You hardly know me.”

“No, but I can tell when somebody is bluffing. Call it a trick of the trade, so to speak.”

“Really? I am intrigued. What’s my story then?”

Jack shifts in his seat a little and leans forward so that he is as close to Nattie as possible.

“I think you are running from something. Maybe a husband, maybe a boyfriend, I don’t know but I think you got in some kind of trouble along the way.”

Nattie considers what Jack has just said. She takes another sip of her drink.

“That makes two of us because I don’t buy that you are a salesman either. I know you have a card but anyone can get one of those.”

“Touché.” Jack raises his glass to Nattie.

“So now that we have established what we aren’t. I’ll tell if you tell.”

“A beauty with brains what a lethal combination.”

The pair hold each other’s gazes for a moment. Nattie is the first to look away.  She debated on telling Jack the real reason why she left Philadelphia but something in his eyes told her she might be able to trust him.

“This goes against my better judgment but why not? I may never see you again and it isn’t that glamorous. I fell for the wrong guy. He stole some money from the wrong person and wound up missing. Needless to say, I could have suffered the same fate so I chose a one-way ticket to Phoenix. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Tough break. I’m sorry.”

Nattie shrugged. “Me too. It’s in the past and like the saying goes, ‘No use crying over spilled milk’.”

“Did you love him?”

“At the time.  Now, it’s your turn.”

“I’m what you might call a middle man.”

“What do you mean?”

“When certain people have things and other people want things, I bridge the gap.”

“So, you’re a thief.”

“In so many words, yes.”

“Are you on a job now?”

Jack smiles. Nattie has to fight the urge to trace his dimple with her finger.

“I am.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“I have a proposition for you.”

Nattie raises her eyebrow.

“Look, I get the feeling you don’t want to end up in Arizona. I could use a little help. Are you interested?”

“What exactly would I be doing?”

“I need you to distract someone while I look for something in their room.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

“What are you looking for?”

“A very special attaché case.”

At this point, Nattie remembers the gentleman from the dining car and Jack’s sudden interest in him.

“Does it happen to belong to the man from the dining car?”

“You catch on really fast.”

“I do. What’s the plan?”

“Well, Mr. Dennison is scheduled to depart the train in St. Louis which is tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. We have to move quick. He usually eats dinner around 8. I was thinking that you could buy him a drink or something and otherwise occupy him.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“I’ll give you half of the fee.”

“Which is?”

“How does 500 sound?”

Nattie considered this for a moment. If she took the 500 she might be able to just skip Phoenix altogether and start fresh in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

“You’ve got a deal.”

Smiling, Nattie offered Jack her hand. He took it and held it while gazing into her eyes.

“I should be getting back to my compartment. It’s almost show time and a girl has to look her very best.”

“Personally, I don’t think you could look much better.”

The color rose in Nattie’s cheeks. Jack reaches across the table and lifts her chin. Moving closer, he gently places his lips on hers. Once they are finished kissing, Jack lingers close to her face.

“I hope you don’t think I was being too forward. I have wanted to do that for quite some time.”
“No, not at all.”  Nattie leans in and kisses Jack again. This time, the kiss is more fervent. Breaking away, Jack stands up and takes Nattie’s hand pulling her up with him. 

“Let’s go someplace a little more private.”

Nattie nods and follows Jack back to his compartment.

Once safely inside, Jack closes the door. He strides purposefully toward Nattie. Embracing her hard, he deftly starts to unbutton her blouse. Nattie does the same thing to him. Their shirts hit the floor, quickly followed by their other garments. Awash in desire, the two tumble on to the bed.

Dennison sits by the window in his compartment watching the scenery. He turns his attention to the attaché case on the table. His fingertips gently caress the burnished leather.

Jack brushes Nattie’s hair from her face as they lie in one another’s arms. He kisses the crown of her head.

“We should probably get ready for our little escapade.”

Nattie sits up. “Yes, after all, I have to look presentable if I am going to play the seductress.”

Jack watches her beautifully sculpted back realizing that he was falling hard for this woman. Part of him understood that they had business to attend to but part of him wanted to wrap her up in his arms and never let her go.

Completely in place once again, a fully dressed Nattie, turns around, leans over and kisses Jack on the lips. “I will see you later.”

As Nattie enters the dining car, she is aware that several of the male patrons are focused on her. With a slight smirk, she locates Dennison who is sitting near the back and sashays her way toward him.

“Hello. Do you mind if I sit down? It’s awfully crowded in here.”

Dennison looks up from his wine to see this impeccably dressed gorgeous creature before him. He stands up nearly knocking the table over. “Please, take a seat.”

Nattie smiles at him. “Thank you so much.” She extends her hand to Dennison.

“I’m Gwen Rogers.”

“Miss Rogers or is it Mrs.?”

“Miss.”

Dennison covers her hand with his.

“I am Richard Dennison.”

“Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise. Please, call me Richard.”

“Alright. You may call me Gwen.”

“Are you traveling alone, Gwen?”

“Yes. Are you?”

“Yes.”

“May I ask business or pleasure?”

“Business.”

From a secluded spot, right outside the dining car, Jack observes Nattie. He smiles and heads for Dennison’s compartment. Right before he gets to the door, he notices the conductor walking his way. Smiling as they pass one another, Jack nods and walks right by Dennison’s compartment and turns the corner. He waits and then circles back.

Removing a lock pick from his jacket pocket, Jack proceeds to work the door. All of a sudden, the catch springs to life and Jack slips inside the room.

He takes a cursory look around him. Everything is in place.  Jack mutters under his breath, “Damn it, Dennison!” He walks over to the closet and opens the door. No attaché case.

In the dining car, Nattie is sipping from a martini glass and Dennison is partaking from a snifter of Cognac. They are laughing as if they are old friends.

“You have such fascinating stories, Richard.”

“Thank you. It isn’t often I get to regale a beautiful woman such as yourself with my tales.”

Nattie leans in so that Dennison can get a nice shot of her ample décolletage.

“Tell me, what will you be doing in St. Louis?”

“I will be delivering an item that took me many years to acquire.”

“That sounds intriguing.”

Dennison takes another sip of his brandy.

“It is a decent living. I have no complaints. My employer pays for me to see the world. What about you?”

“Well, my employer isn’t that nice but I hope to see the world someday.”

Dennison reaches across the table and slides his hand over Nattie’s.

“I can be quite a good tour guide.”

Nattie smiled but inwardly she was wondering what was taking Jack so long? She studied her current dinner companion with his ridiculous mustache and pretentious manner trying to determine if she should excuse herself and see what was going on in his compartment.

At that moment, Jack appeared within eye shot of Nattie. Nodding, he motioned for her to follow him. 

“I would like to take you up on that offer sometime.” Nattie glances at her watch. “I didn’t realize it was this late!”

“Nonsense! It is the shank of the evening. At least do me the courtesy of having another cocktail with me.”

“Thank you for the offer but I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow. I have had a wonderful time.”

“At least allow me to escort you back to your room.”

“Certainly.”

Back in Nattie’s compartment, Jack found himself studying the attaché case. He turned it over. There was no key in sight and his lock picking skills seemed to be failing him. At least he had what his boss was looking for and certainly someone would figure out how to open the damn thing. Then again, if they couldn’t, well, he didn’t want to think about the consequences.

Nattie stopped at her door. “Thank you for a lovely time, Richard.”

“The pleasure was all mine, Nattie. If you ever get to St. Louis, do not hesitate to look me up.”

Richard produced his business card and handed it to Nattie.

“Thank you so much, I will.”

Without warning, Richard leans in, grabs Nattie by the waist and pulls her into an awkward embrace. 
Caught off guard, Nattie attempts to struggle but before she can do anything, Richard’s mouth is covering hers. She tries pushing him back but his grip on her only gets tighter.

Inside the room, Jack hears a scuffle outside the door. He can hear Nattie’s muffled cries. Immediately alarmed, he springs into action. At the exact time, he begins to turn the doorknob, Nattie flies into the room accompanied by a startled Richard Dennison. Her blouse is askew and her hair is out of place. Jack assesses the situation.

“Hey Pal. Were you getting a little handsy with my girl?”

Dennison looks at Nattie who immediately looks at Jack.

“Accept my apologies, sir. I didn’t know the lady was otherwise engaged, I thought…”

Jack cuts him off.

“You thought because she was alone that you could take advantage of her.”

“No, I swear….”

“Well, that’s not the way I see it and I am certain that is not how the lady sees it either. Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I’m fine. Just a little shaken.”

At this point before Dennison can extricate himself from the situation, Jack grabs him and shoves him into the room, locking the door behind him.

“While you’re here, I could use your assistance.”

“What are you talking about? I…”

Jack shoves Dennison forward in the direction of the attaché case which is on the table. When Dennison sees it, his eyes widen almost comically.

“My attaché! Where did you…?”

“Where do you think? There’s a problem with this, Chief and I need you to solve it. The damn thing won’t open so do whatever magic you have to do and fix the situation.”

Dennison narrows his eyes. His nostrils flair with indignation.

“I most certainly will not! This is my property, sir.”

“Okay. So, this is how this is going to work.” 

Jack removes a gun from his inside jacket pocket. With it, he gestures for Dennison to move toward the table. Nattie watches in stunned silence.

“You are going to open that attaché case.”

“I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I don’t have the key. I mean…it’s not on me at present. It’s in my room.”

Rolling his eyes, Jack grabs Dennison by the shoulder and propels him to the door.

“Well, then we are going to have to go to your room and get it.”

Once outside the compartment, Jack presses his gun into Dennison’s back. He growls into his ear.
“If you so much as breathe wrong, I will shoot you.”

The two men walk down the narrow hallways. They see a couple coming toward them. Jack pulls Dennison to the side so that the couple can pass them. Nodding politely, the couple goes on their merry way.

Finally, they arrive at Dennison’s compartment. Fumbling with his key, Dennison manages to get his door open. He and Jack step inside.

With a quickness that belies his rather lumbering form, Dennison whips around and thrusts his arm up against Jack’s Adam’s apple pinning him against the door.

“I am going to cut off your air supply. When I was in the Orient, I learned this trick from a master. Very effective.”

Jack attempts to struggle.

“Soon, you will be passing out so you might as well quit struggling. Unfortunately for you, I will not be providing you with the key to my attaché which you so rudely requested.”

Feeling light headed, Jack points his gun square at Dennison’s gut.

Dennison attempts to knock the gun out of Jack’s hand but only succeeds in burying it deeper into his gut muffling the discharge of the weapon. Slowly removing his arm from Jack’s throat, Dennison staggers backwards and realizes that he has been shot. Blood is seeping from his stomach and staining his jacket. He looks at Jack incredulously before sinking to his knees.

“God, damn it, Dennison! Don’t die on me! Jesus Christ! Where is that key?”

Dennison passes out. Jack pats him down, searches his pockets and comes up empty handed. Frantically, he begins to ransack the room.

Back in Nattie’s compartment, she began to wonder what was going on. It wasn’t a good sign that Jack hadn’t returned. Truly unnerved, she began to pace the room. Finally, Jack enters. She immediately notices the worried expression on his face.

“We have a bit of a problem.”

“What happened?”

“Dennison jumped me in his room, I shot him. Accidentally. That key is nowhere to be found.”

“Did you search the room?”

“Of course, I did! I’m not an amateur!”

“Sorry.”

Jack walks over to Nattie and pulls her close to him.

“I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“What are you going to do?”

“For starters, there will be a change of travel plans. I will have to get off in Cincinnati. I don’t want to stick around for them to find the body.”

“Did anybody see you?”

“Yes, and I don’t want to risk it.”

“Without the key, will your employer still want the attaché case?”

“Yes. They are pretty resourceful. Look Nattie, I need you to do something for me.”

“Name it.”

“I can’t stay on this train. You know it and I know it. I need you to take this attaché and deliver it. Since you were with Dennison and someone might recognize you, I suggest you get off at St. Louis and get a connecting train to Los Angeles.”

“Where will you be?”

“I am going to lay low for a while until this blows over. I will meet you in California in a few days. My employer will be waiting for me at the train station. I’ll let them know to expect you instead.”

“I have no idea what I’ll be looking for or….”

“They’ll find you. I know I am asking a lot of you.” Jack searches Nattie’s bright blue eyes. He leans down and kisses her softly on the lips. “When this is over, I promise you, we’ll be together.” This time, Nattie pulls Jack toward her in a tight embrace.

Later that evening, the train slows to a stop at Union Terminal in Cincinnati. Nattie finishes buttoning her blouse while Jack zips up his pants.

“Looks like this is it. Nattie...”

“It’s okay, Jack. Just be careful.”

Jack kisses Nattie on the lips. The train slows to a stop.  After a quick hug, he leaves the compartment. Her eyes filling with tears, Nattie makes her way to the window. She watches Jack’s departing frame wondering if she will ever see him again.