Story-A-Day May #17: The Last Train

Today’s prompt is to write a story about a character who can’t wait to leave town, inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Travel:

. . . there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

This time, my story features a spy, who needs a way out.

***

The Last Train

In a dismal alleyway with four exits — five, counting the broken window in the basement of the VCR repair shop — Wallace waited anxiously for his contact to arrive. A relentless downpour pelted his hat, pulled so low it brushed the upturned collar of his trenchcoat. This meeting was too rushed. Ill-advised. Better be worth it.

He squeezed the revolver in his coat pocket as a figure stumbled toward him, head swiveling around wildly. Could the man make himself any more suspicious?

“Were you followed?” Wallace felt obliged to ask, even though this booksmart researcher wouldn’t know tradecraft from witchcraft.

Big eyes blinked from behind even bigger lenses, spattered with raindrops. “I don’t think so,” said Dr. Hemlen, in a thickly accented voice. “I followed your advice.”

Except his advice that they shouldn’t meet, at all.

The bespectacled man handed over a manilla folder. “It is urgent your government receives these papers. They concern a weapon, unlike-”

Wallace raised his hand while tucking the documents away. “Not my department, the tech boys handle that. I just move objects from point A to point B.”

The doctor nervously wiped his glasses, which were covered in rain again the moment he finished. “Perhaps, when they realize the importance of my contribution, I will be the next object, for whom you arrange a border-crossing?”

“I’m certain of it,” said Wallace. Always tell them what they want to hear.

“I thank you, Mister-”

“No names.” His internal alarm clock was ringing; the encounter had gone on long enough. He nodded, once, and walked away. No pounding bootheels, or cries of alarm — always a good sign. As he exited onto a busy street, he didn’t spot any over-curious onlookers. It was a clean getaway. As clean as they got in this filthy, corrupted city.

Wallace woke before dawn in his darkened apartment. He didn’t sleep much these days. Donning a pair of headphones, he listened to yesterday’s recorded wiretaps. A lot of droning, mundane office talk as usual. The assistant manager was having an affair, but it was tepid blackmail material.

He always waited for the morning paper before eating his breakfast — a grapefruit, a slice of unbuttered toast, and a cup of coffee. No deviation.

Today, tucked away in a little side column, it brought bad news.

Senior Scientist Killed In Hit-And-Run Accident

Reading past the headline was nothing but a formality; he was already certain of the victim’s name. So, they had been on to Dr. Hemlen. But were they on to Wallace?

This altered his plans substantially. He’d been planning to pass the papers along to a third-party next week, while continuing his own operations in the city. Now, it seemed more prudent to hand-deliver them.

Not only was his cover potentially blown, but the death of Dr. Hemlen heightened the credibility of his claims, concerning the papers’ importance.

Wallace turned off all the lights in the apartment and went to the window. Slowly, he peeled back the curtain. As usual there were cars parked all along the street, most of which he’d dedicated to memory. A couple he didn’t recognize: a brown sedan, and a little lime green coupe. Might be nothing. Might be everything.

He dragged the telephone over to a table beside the window, and picked up his binoculars with one hand, while he spun the dial with the other.

Seen through magnification, the driver of the coupe was sitting behind the wheel. Just waiting there, for no discernible reason. Never a good sign.

The receiver clicked, but no one answered. He said, “It’s Wallace. I’m thinking of visiting the lakehouse. Could you send a car?”

A flat voice replied, “No cars available. You’ll have to drive yourself.”

Wallace hung up, disappointed, but not surprised. Not many field agents could expect a proper extraction with professional support. He was on his own, to sink or swim.

Moments later, he was fully dressed, revolver in his pocket, pseudonymous passport ready, the papers stashed in the hidden compartment of an attache case. He decided not to take any chances with the car out front.

From his apartment, he walked straight to the end of the hall, unlatched and slid open the window, and climbed out onto the fire escape, six stories up. Without hesitating, he leapt from the railing onto the neighboring building’s fire escape, broke the window with his elbow, and let himself in.

From there, he descended the stairs two at a time into the basement boiler room — whose key he’d procured from a cheaply-bought maintenance worker. Then up and out the side door, labeled Employees Only.

Despite having plenty of cash for cab fare, he decided to try for the train station on foot. He didn’t trust the local cabbies, whose driving was dangerous enough even when they had the best intentions. And any agency worth its salt would have quite a few of them on their payroll, since their eyes and ears went everywhere. Saw everyone.

He arrived at the station without incident, or sign of a tail, and he’d used every trick in his playbook. At the ticket counter, he bought a round-trip to Istanbul. No sense in giving away his intentions to never return. Every small detail might be of importance — and you never knew which, or when.

Out on the platform, he waited anxiously. His hands alternately squeezed the attache case and the concealed revolver.

A train horn blared, signalling it was passing through the station.

Two men on either side of Wallace seized him by his elbows.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” He dug his shoe heels into the platform to no avail. Locked in the men’s iron grasp, he couldn’t wiggle the revolver free from his pocket.

The train screamed. A cold, incomprehensible machine bearing down on him, with no brakes, no way to alter its course. A cheap metaphor.

Wallace’s last thought was not one of fear, but rather annoyance that he’d been outplayed at his work, which he took so seriously. Small consolation that the odds had been rigged against him.

The papers fluttered everywhere.

Thanks for reading!

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