All Aboard The Orient Express
by Akhila Rajan
Climbing aboard the first-class compartment of the Orient Express, the short rotund man with a distinctive moustache remarked, “Harding, hopefully it will be a peaceful journey this time!”
He recalled the last time they had travelled on the train… It was dramatic, given a complex murder on board, which he had solved. Boarding just after him, his friend and fellow traveller Harding, a gentle faced man with a salt and pepper beard smiled and replied, “Fingers crossed Henri!”
The compartment filled up shortly and Henri looked around, making a mental note of the various passengers. A gentleman in his early forties, looking rather distinguished and stern with a pince-nez, with a fragile beauty accompanying him. They entered two separate cabins, although they appeared to be travelling together. She was quite pale with delicately chiseled features, blonde hair, and deep blue eyes.
In the cabin across the aisle was a man in his sixties with grey hair and a moustache. From his posture and demeanour, he struck Henri as an ex -Army man. Further down was a young couple with two kids and a governess. He placed them as American, based on their accents.
He cast an eye of approval across his cabin. Tastefully done. The seats were soft leather and the curtains were lace, with an intricate floral design.
As the train slowly chugged out of Paris Gare de Lyon, Henri enjoyed the soothing sight of the French countryside. He was in a contemplative mood, as the train made its way to Venice.
“Mr. Henri Pascal, is it not? The word famous detective! I am so happy to meet you,” said an excited voice.
Shaken out of his reverie, Pascal turned around and saw the distinguished looking man and the timeless beauty by his side.
“Sir Percival,” the man introduced himself, extending his hand and clasping Henri’s in a firm handshake.
“Let me introduce you to my fiancée Jane Wallis. We are to be wedded in Venice the day after,” he said, turning to the girl next to him. She managed a faint, forced smile. Henri got up to greet her and introduced his companion Captain Harding to them.
“It would be an honour to dine with you this evening. I am a great fan of your work”, said Sir Percival.
They agreed to meet in the dining car at 6 pm.
Sir Percival and Jane made their way back to their cabins and Henri started to read the papers. The man across the aisle had perked up on hearing Harding’s background. He came across and introduced himself as Major Williams and soon he and Harding slipped into army banter.
Their chitter-chatter was a lullaby for Henri, who soon dozed off.
He woke up with a start and realised it was 5.30 pm. Almost time for dinner. A little after 6, Pascal and Harding found themselves seated opposite Sir Percival and his fiancee. The dinner that had been laid out was indeed a a gastronomic delight.
“The wine is excellent too,” Henri nodded, approvingly.
The conversation hovered around many of their mutually known contacts in London and gay Paree. Jane was unusually quiet, and Henri sensed a certain unease, which Sir Percival seemed quite oblivious to. The age difference between them was quite stark, about twenty years or so.
As he sipped his glass of port appreciatively while tucking into the Crème Brûlée, he remarked to the waiter, “Please pass on my compliments to the chef for an excellent meal”. The waiter nodded and receded into the background. The conversation veered around to Pascal’s cases.
“What is the secret to your crime solving abilities worldwide Henri?”
Henri nodded modestly and replied, “Human nature is fairly predictable. Combined with a keen sense of observation, one can mostly draw the right conclusions”.
Just then, they had a visitor to their table. A generously built man with a genial smile appeared and introduced himself as the chef.
Seeing him Henri exclaimed, “Marcel, I didn’t know you were here. Only you could have rustled up such delectable fare!”The chef beamed.
Turning to the others he said, “I have known Marcel from his days as a chef at a London restaurant I used to frequent.”
Marcel took his leave and they wound down dinner with espressos. As they said their ‘bon nuits’, Henri could not but notice the sparkling blue diamond on Jane’s finger, as he bent down to kiss her hand.
Returning to their cabins, Henri spent a while reading a book on British history, then turned to Harding and said, “I think I will go stretch my legs a bit, before retiring for the night”.
Harding was fast asleep when Henri returned an hour later. The famous detective quietly slid into his bed, sighing slightly, as he put on ear plugs to drown out Harding’s snoring.
The train hurtled towards its destination through the night. In the morning, as the gentle rays of the sun came through the curtains, Henri stirred in his bed. An urgent knock on the door quickly roused him out of his slumber. A rather disheveled and distraught Sir Percival was standing there.
I can’t seem to find Jane on the train”. I have looked everywhere!” he said in an agitated tone. “Mr. Pascal, you must help me find her.”
It was a plea that could not be refused.
“Let us check with the guard and look through the various cabins, with the occupants’ permissions of course,” said Pascal.
Sir Percival calmed down a bit. But after a thorough search on the train, Jane was not to be found anywhere.
It was as if she had vanished into thin air.
The guard concluded that there was only possible – albeit gruesome explanation – she must have jumped off the train. Since the Orient Express, true to its name, did not make any night halts. A message was relayed to the control room to initiate a search, all along the route.
By the time the search on the train was called off it was nearly midday, and no one had had a morsel to eat. Sir Percival had an air of resignation about him and went back to his cabin, stating that he did not have any appetite.
Henri and Harding made their way to the dining car for a quick meal, before the train reached its destination.
They ordered some omelettes and toast, with coffee. The meal continued in silence, till Harding blurted, “Henri, I can’t believe that you could not get to the bottom of this mystery! You have solved so many complex murders in your lifetime.”
Henri smiled enigmatically and said ,“What makes you think I didn’t? “
Harding’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Really! What actually happened?”
“Mon ami, human nature is remarkably predictable. Our minds search for the most complex solution, ignoring the simple truth”.
Harding looked bewildered.
“The most likely inference,” Pascal continued, “Is that she is still on the train and if yes, where could she hide?
The answer would in plain sight.
The events of last evening ….
“I could not help noticing the palpable discomfort Jane felt with Sir Percival. As we parted after dinner, she slipped me a note.
Please meet me in the dining car in an hour.
I headed out under the pretext of exercise, and the poor girl poured her heart out. She was being forced into the wedding due to the debts her father owed Sir Percival. Her heart was elsewhere, and she was desperately seeking a way out.
I asked Marcel if he could assist and he readily agreed. The rest played out as expected.”
Harding was flummoxed. What help? Where was she?? He knew that asking was futile. Pascal would ask him to exercise ze little grey cells.
“Would you like another cup of coffee?” asked the waitress.
Harding nodded absent-mindedly. But, as she poured the brew into his cup, he could not help noticing. A bright blue ring sparkling on her finger.
A wide smile appeared on Harding’s face.
“So much for an uneventful journey Henri!”
This story was written as part of the Writer’s Gym program open to those who have completed the Short Story Writing Workshop. The piece was edited by Rashmi Bansal.
pic courtesy: Murdockcrc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons