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The Night of Ten – La Noche del 10
|by Dibyendu Ghosal|
The climate was really unstable, and the wind, which had all but stopped for a few hours, had veered suddenly to the North. I didn’t know what it presaged, but I suspected it was not anything good.
As I opened the folder of my daily morning newspaper, the top-half portion of the International Herald Tribune showed the ghastly sight of an indistinct picture of a railway smash of some kind, carriages on a bridge that ended abruptly over a stretch of water, with boats beneath, and I realized that it was a shocking train disaster - the reporter saying that a loaded luxury commuters’ train at Elizabeth, New Jersey, had plunged out over an opened span of the bridge into the waters of the cold Newark Bay. There were only dozens of passengers all of whom have died and all the dead bodies have been recovered . Above all, the train was carrying something ‘very important’. This made my naturally curious mind more curious towards this particular case, even though it seemed to be of very large dimension.
I was restless to inquire into the case . But I was posted at a different city away from New Jersey.
Acute concern crept across my face as I watched the screen from outside the RetroVision store window. "Police are still baffled as the cause of the Newark Bay Railway Disaster remains unsolved and also about the identity of the criminal if it was a sabotage”.
I was preparing myself to surrender to complete rest to avert an absolute breakdown of my health. I had to give myself a complete change of scene & air. Thus, in the early Spring I found myself in a small cottage near the Logun International Airport in Boston.
And on the whole my company boss Herr Wilhelm did well. He was cautious, and he had the benefit of the still greater caution and larger experience of Herr Gerhardt, the second partner in the firm.
Patents and the laws which regulate them are queer things to have to do with. No one who has not had personal experience of the complications that arise could believe how far these spread and how entangled they become. Great acuteness as well as caution is called for if you would guide your patent bark safely to port – and perhaps more than anything, a power of holding your tongue. I was no chatterbox, nor, when on a mission of importance, did I go about looking as if I were bursting with secrets, which is, in my opinion, almost as dangerous as revealing them. No one, to meet me on the journeys which it often fell to my lot to undertake, would have guessed that I had anything on my mind but an easy-going young fellow's natural interest in his surroundings, though many a time I have stayed awake through a whole night of railway travel if at all doubtful about my fellow-passengers, or not dared to go to sleep in a hotel without a ready-loaded revolver by my pillow. For now and then - though not through me - our secrets did ooze out. And if, as has happened, they were secrets connected with Government orders or contracts, there was, or but for the exertion of the greatest energy and tact on the part of my superiors, there would have been, to put it plainly, the devil to pay.
One morning - it was nearing the end of November - I was sent for to Herr Wilhelm's private room. There I found Herr Gerhardt before a table spread with papers covered with figures and calculations, and sheets of beautifully executed diagrams.
"Mr. Dibyendu," said Herr Wilhelm," you will take the super luxury express through Boston – on the whole it is the best route, especially at this season. By traveling all night you will catch the boat there, and arrive in New Jersey so as to have a good night's rest, and be clear-headed for work the next morning."
I bowed in agreement, but ventured to make a suggestion.
Herr Wilhelm looked at Herr Gerhardt. Herr Gerhardt shook his head.
Suddenly his mood changed ."No," he replied, "tomorrow it must be," and then he proceeded to explain to me why.
Suffice it to say, the whole concerned a patent - that of a very remarkable and wonderful invention, which it was hoped and believed the Government would take up. But to secure this being done in a thoroughly satisfactory manner it was necessary that our firm should go about it in concert with a German house of first-rate standing. To this house - the firm of Messrs Berliner Hathaway ---- I was to be sent with full explanations. And the next half-hour or more passed in my superiors going minutely into the details, so as to satisfy themselves that I understood. The mastering of the whole was not difficult, for I was well-grounded technically; and like many of the best things the idea was essentially simple, and the diagrams were perfect. When the explanations were over, and my instructions duly noted, he began to gather together the various sheets, which were all numbered. But, to my surprise, Herr Gerhardt, looking over me, withdrew two of the most important diagrams, without which the others were valueless, because inexplicable.
"Stay," he said; "these two, mister, must be kept separate. These we send today, by U.S. Express Post, direct to our client The Streisands Inc. They will receive them a day before they see you, and with them a letter announcing your arrival."
I started to prepare myself to head for my destination.
I found myself along with my consort , Ms. Alexandra, entering the station at a run just as - yes, a train was actually beginning to move! We dashed, baggage and all, into a compartment; it was empty, and it was a luxury one, precisely similar to the one I had occupied before; it might have been the very same one. The train gradually increased its speed, but for the first few moments, while still in the station and passing through its immediate entourage, another strange thing struck me -- the extraordinary silence and lifelessness of all about. Not one human being did I see, no porter watching our departure with the faithful though stolid interest always to be seen on the porter's visage. I might have been alone in the train -- it might have had a freight of the dead, and been itself propelled by some supernatural agency, so noiselessly, so gloomily did it proceed.
We reached New Jersey safely .
Brian was a black man, we had met him in the station on our first arrival in this Old City area . He had politely introduced himself out of the blue and spent a whole day insisting he keep me company until he finally won me over with his charm and became my friend in that alien land . He worked over as a guide.
After taking that night's rest , I headed for the disaster site, without even bothering to report to my company, while Alexandra preferred to stay at home.
My instinct made me restless until I reached that particular area.
Even though I am not a daredevil nor I have ever been involved in any daredevil act, I idolize the great aviator Howard Hughes. Nothing in my life is fiction. Fortunately, I did not leave my sense of humor in the tarmac. So my life is laced with funny anecdotes. Actually I’m a reasonably good swimmer . But a few years ago the speedboat my friend and I were in capsized in the Powai Lake situated in India. He didn’t know how to swim and there were crocodiles in the lake. It put the fear of water in me.
The wreckage caught my eyes from a distance . The mangled wreckage have been lifted up and kept in the nearby field .I jumped for the side-screen of one compartment, hooked my fingers over the sill; hauled myself up with some difficulty and wriggled my way into the driver’s cabin, flashing my torch around. Out of the five compartments the train was carrying , only the engine driver’s cabin and the pantry could be barely recognizable after the accident ---even in a mangled form . I entered inside the mangled pantry. There was a big refrigerator, with a small hinged table in front of it, and at the far end, under the window , a hinged box covered over what might have been a heating unit or sink or both.
But there was something so gloomy and unsociable, so queer and almost weird about the whole aspect and feeling of the place, that a sort of irritable resignation took possession of me.
Across the narrow passage I found what I was looking for almost immediately even though I had not had pretty good idea where to look . The thin metal at the top right-hand corner of the compartment was bent almost an inch out of true.
Now that I had time to spare it more than a fleeting glance it was abundantly clear to me that the wrenching away of the face-plate did not even begin to account for the damage that had been done .
Gradually, ever so gradually, in infuriating slow-motion process, thoughts were beginning to click into place in my numbed mind. I straightened , walked forward into the cabin and stumbled on something . I shone my torch on the object and it was a dead man. As I had noticed , he appeared to be completely unmarked , and I don’t know whether it was some unconscious process of logical reasoning or some strange instinct enough to see the black ‘bullet hole’ in the middle of the spine . My mouth was suddenly dry, and my heart was thudding heavily in my chest.
I lowered the policeman’s jacket, pulled it down into position , turned away and walked slowly towards the rear of the wrecked cabin . And there I found another policeman-- with a deadly head injury , completely still, propped up stiffly in a corner, as stiffly as he would remain there for heaven only knew how many frozen centuries to come .Surprisingly, there was not a single metal projection in the entire wall, nothing that could possibly account for the wound in the back the jacket was fastened by a central button. I undid it, saw nothing except a curious thin leather strap running across the chest, undid a shirt button , and there it was, the same deadly hole , the same evidence of point-blank firing staining the whiteness of the singlet. But in this case the powder marks were concentrated on the upper part of the ring, showing that the pistol had been directed in a slightly downward angle. I eased him forward, and there , less like a 'bullet hole' in the jacket than an inconsequential rip one might easily overlook, was the point of exit. Heaven knows that I was in no mental frame of mind at the moment, anyway, to figure anything out . I was like an automation. I felt nothing at the time, not even horror at the hideous thought that the policeman’s neck might well have been cold-bloodedly broken after death to conceal its true cause . If ever there was a time when my thoughts should have been racing it was then , but the plain truth is that they were not . My mind was sluggish, but even so I knew that this time I could not be wrong about what had happened to the two police personnel who might have come for some inspection of the ill-fated carriage.
The leather strap across the dead man’s chest led to a felt-covered holster under the arm. I took out the little dark snub-nosed automatic, pressed the release switch and shook the magazine out from the base of the grip. It was an eight-shot clip, full. I replaced it and shoved the gun into the inside pocket of my overcoat .
I made a desperate effort. Cold as it was, the beads of perspiration stood out upon my forehead as I forced myself along. And by degrees the nightmare feeling was beginning to clear off.
It was just at that moment that I heard the sharp metallic sound coming from the front of the dark, mangled and deserted carriage . For may be five seconds, may be ten, I stood there without moving , as rigid and motionless as the dead policemen by my side with a bent right arm.
What, then, were we doing here, and what was 'here'? Had there been an accident - some unforeseen necessity for stopping? At that moment a curious sound, from some yards' distance only it seemed to come, caught my ear. It was croaking, cackling! - the sound of my momentary mental unconsciousness, towards which I immediately felt an instinctive aversion. I looked out of the wrecked window - there was that refreshment room just opposite, dimly lighted, like everything else, and in the doorway, as if just entering, was a figure which I felt pretty sure was that of a person.
Looking back on it, I can only think that my brain had been half-numbed from too long exposure to the cold, that the shock of the discovery of the two savagely murdered policemen had upon me more than I would admit even to myself, and that the morgue-like atmosphere of that chill metal tomb had affected my normally un-imaginative mind to a degree quite unprecedented in my experience . Or may be the nameless dreads that can in a moment send the adrenalin pumping crazily into the bloodstream .However it was, I had only one thought in mind at that moment, but an unreasoning blood-freezing certainty : that one of the dead policemen had somehow risen from his seat and was walking back towards me . Even yet I can remember the frenzy of my wild, frantic hope that it was not the Inspector.
Heaven only knows how long might have sat there, petrified in this superstitious horror, had the sound from the front not repeated itself . But again I heard it, the same metallic scraping sound as tangled wreckage of the deck, and as the touch of an electric switch can turn a room from pitch darkness to the brightness of daylight, so this second sound served to recall me , in an instant ,from pitch darkness to the brightness of daylight, so this second sound served to recall me, in an instant, from the thrall of superstition and panic to the world of reality and reason, and I dropped swiftly on my knees behind the high padded back of the seat in front of me, for what little shelter it offered. My heart was still was still pounding , the hairs still on the back of my neck, but I was a going concern again, my mind beginning to race under the impetus invariably provided by the need for self-preservation.
A person who had killed two times to achieve his or her ends --- and protect the secret would not hesitate to kill a third . And the killer knew his or her secret was no longer a secret, not while I lived ! he or she need not hesitate to use the gun : apart from the fact that the North wind would carry the crack of a pistol-shot away from the cabin.
I began to feel as if there was an evil spirit haunting me. I could only hope that the splendid lock to the bag had defied all curiosity, but I felt in a fever to be alone again, and able to satisfy myself that nothing had been tampered with. The thought recalled my wandering faculties. How long had he been asleep? I drew out my watch. Heavens! It was close upon the first hour the morning. Not a creature was to be seen in the room or at the door as I passed out - always excepting the still unseen and unknown dangerous person.
Then something snapped inside my mind and I was all of a sudden a fighting mad. Perhaps it was the inevitable reaction from my panic-stricken fear of a moment ago, and perhaps, too, it had no little to do with the realization that I , too, had a gun. I brought it out from my pocket, transferred the torch to my left hand, jumped up, pressed the torch button and started running down. It was proof enough of my partial inexperience in this murderous game of hide-and-seek that it was not until I was almost at the door at the forward end that I remembered how easy it would have been for anyone to shoot me at point-blank range as I passed. But there was no one there and as I plunged through the door, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a dark muffled figure, no more than a featureless silhouette in the none too powerful beam of my torch, wriggling out through the smashed side-screen of the cabin.
I brought up my automatic---the thought that I could be indicted on a murder charge for killing a fleeing person, no matter how criminal a person, never entered my mind----and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. And I plainly heard the thud of feet hitting the ground.
Cursing my stupidity, and again oblivious of the perfect target I was presenting, I leaned far out of the window. Again I was lucky , again I had another brief sight of the figure, this time scurrying round the tip of the right flank before vanishing into the darkness.
Two seconds later was on the ground myself. I landed awkwardly but picked myself up at once and skirted round the wreckage, pounding after the fleeing figure with all speed I could muster in the hampering bulkiness of my fur and overcoat. But It was not too late yet. The wind had been blowing almost directly in my face as I had been running : all I could do was walk back . I turned , took one step, then two, then halted in my tracks. Where could the attack come from -----downwind, so that I could se nothing, or upwind , so that I could hear nothing? Downwind , I decided-- one could move as silently as on a tar-macadam road.
Five minutes passed and nothing happened . So well-adjusted now were my eyes to the darkness, so well-attuned my ears to the area's mournful symphony of sound, that I would have sworn that had there been anyone there to be seen or heard, I would have seen or heard them.
For once, that night , I did not panic. I knew that panic would have been the end of me. I could not even begin to guess what the tremendously high stakes must be in this murderous game that this incredibly ruthless and deceptive person was playing, but I swore to myself that I was not going to be one of the pawns that were going to be brushed off the table . I stood still, and took stock. And it was just my evil luck that it should fall so heavily that night. The wind was northerly or had been, but in that fickle climate there was no knowing what minute it might be back or veer.
I trudged along the road - there were lamps, though very feeble ones; but by their light he saw that the tall man who had been in the wrecked compartment just a few moments ago was still a few steps ahead of me. It made me feel slightly nervous, and I looked round furtively once or twice; the last time I did so I was not to be seen, and I hoped he had gone some other way.
Dawn was not yet breaking, but there was in one direction a faint suggestion of something of the kind not far off. Otherwise all was dark. I stumbled along as best as I could, helped in reality, by the ugly yellow glimmer of the woebegone street, or road lamps. And it was not far to the station, though somehow it seemed farther than when I came; and somehow, too, it seemed to have grown steep, though I could not remember having noticed any slope the other way on my arrival. A nightmare-like sensation began to oppress me. I felt as if my luggage was growing momentarily heavier and heavier, as if I should never reach the station; and to this was joined the agonizing terror of missing the train.
I ran all the way back to my cottage. I was vaguely surprised to see one shadow still moving in the lamp-lit screen. The young girl was still in the far corner, working on the gas-stove and was rubbing her hands above the flame.
"Cold, Miss?" I inquired solicitously. At least, I had meant it to sound that way, but even to myself my voice sounded hoarse and strained.
Messaging my cold face, I walked away into the bedroom, nodding to Alexandra. She joined me immediately.
"Somebody just tried to murder me out there." I said without preamble.
"Murder you !" Alexandra stared at me for a long moment, then her eyes narrowed. "I'll believe anything in this lot.""Meaning?"
"What happened to you, Sir?" she asked quietly.
I told her everything, and watched her face tighten till the mouth was a thin white line in the dark face. She knew what it meant to be lost in the wilderness of cold darkness.
"The murderous, cold-blooded devil," she said softly. "We'll have to nail the killer, Sir. We'll have to, or god only knows who's next on that killer's list. But won't we have to have proof or something? We can't just......"
"I'm going to get that," I said. The bitter anger still dominated my mind to the exclusion of all else.
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