July 04, 2014

Stranger on a Train

Stranger on a Train

{Excerpt from Murder at the Dacha, by Alexei Bayer. Published by Russian Life books. All Rights Reserved}

At the far end of the car a man stood up. Facing him was a middle-aged woman wearing a pink cardigan, its home-knit fabric stretching over her ample bosom. She was plump and her head barely reached the man’s shoulder. But what she lacked height, she made up in spunk. Hands on hips, a double chin thrust forward, she clearly wasn’t going to take any crap from anybody.

“You won’t get away with it,” she shouted, stabbing the air with an index finger. “Harassing a young woman like that.”

Her face had turned beet red and her eyes gleamed with excitement. A lock of hennaed hair had burst free from under her kerchief.

“Shut up, bitch.”

The man’s voice was soft and lazy, but the words resonated in the sudden silence. He looked like someone who had been holding it in and was about to burst.

“What did you say, you, criminal?” shrieked the woman. “I’m not afraid of you.”

The train was moving along and the lights outside the window were dull and yellow, speeding back toward Serpukhov.

“A drunk,” said a woman next to me.

“A thug,” another passenger corrected her. “I’ve seen plenty of them in my time.”

As though to confirm this assertion, the man leaned over the pink cardigan and said softly:

“I’ll wring your neck if you don’t pipe down.”

She choked and stood silent for a moment, appalled.

“Did you hear that,” she screamed at last, turning to other passengers. “He’s just threatened me. Somebody do something. Why are you standing around, men?”

“The police should be called,” someone said reluctantly.

Before the quarrel started, the man had been sitting by the window, across from a young woman who apparently was the cause of the commotion. Whether or not he had been bothering her, she now sat motionless, as though the scene had nothing to do with her. She wore a fashionable nylon kerchief with a blue polka dot pattern, which left most of her face in its shadow. The lights from the window glided over her sharp cheekbones.

No one showed much inclination to get involved and I too decided to stay out of it for the time being. The man could have been a jail bird, but the red cardigan seemed more than capable of standing up to him. Slowly, I edged up the aisle, which had become strangely less crowded. While the woman kept shouting and gesticulating, I had plenty of time to study her opponent.

A character, of course. His clothes were worn, and his tweed overcoat came from a shorter, stockier man. But he was dressed with considerable care. His military boots were waxed and polished, even if now smeared with mud. His hair was short and he was clean-shaven. It was not easy to tell his age. He had a youthful face, which got sharper as he got angry, but tinged with gray and deeply lined.

He didn’t relish being the center of attention. But his attempt to scare the pink cardigan backfired, bringing forth a torrent of invectives that was not going to stop any time soon.

Finally, he gave up and started to move out, stepping on other passengers’ toes and kicking knitted bags of fruit and vegetables on the floor. Once he reached the aisle, he turned and looked back at the young woman. She kept staring straight ahead.

I stood in the aisle, blocking his way.

“Move over, asshole,” he said in the same soft, lazy voice, coming close to me.

I was getting used to being insulted in that car.

“Did you hear me? Are you deaf?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “My hearing is good."

“What the hell is your problem?”

His voice rose, suddenly sounding the familiar high notes of labor camp hysterics.

I shrugged, to indicate that I wasn’t sure myself what my problem was.

“Very well, then,” he said.

He was suddenly calm again. He slipped his right hand into his pocket and when he pulled it out again it was for all intents and purposes empty except for a millimeter-wide edge of a straight razor gleaming between his thumb and forefinger.

The pink cardigan was observant. This time she didn’t shriek but threw up her hands and whispered:

“There’s going to be a murder.”

I was sure he wouldn’t try to stab me with people around. But I don’t like straight razors or people who carry them. I shielded myself with my left hand, jumped as high as I could--he had a couple of inches on me - and head-butted him in the face. I felt the resistance of his septal cartiladge and something cracked with a dull, sickening sound.

He sagged onto the floor, blood streaming down his face, flooding his mouth and chin and soiling his shirt front. It gathered at our feet in a scarlet puddle.

“They’re killing each other,” the pink cardigan shouted. “Men and comrades, move. Pull them apart.”

Men and comrades came to life at last. Several of them jumped up and rushed over to the man, who was now leaning against a bench. I eased the razor out of his grasp and just as I did so a fat passenger fell on top of him, pressing him down and shouting into his ear:

“You goddamn gangster, you’ll pay for it.”

“Get the police,” another passenger shouted from his seat.

I pushed the fat passenger off the man and told others to stop kicking him.

“I’m the police,” I announced. “Sr. Lt. Pavel Matyushkin, Moscow Criminal Investigations. Do we have witnesses?”

I pointed to the fat passenger.

“You for instance?”

“I saw everything, Comrade  Policeman,” the pink cardigan butted in. “When he pulled a knife on you I thought I was going to faint. He was bothering a girl. I had my eye on him from the moment he got on. Didn’t I, my dear?”

We both turned to where the young woman had sat. The two seats across from each other were empty. At the other end of the car, the glass doors slid silently shut.

“Never mind,” I said, getting back to the problem at hand. “We’ll take him off at the next stop. But no more punching or kicking. We’re Soviet citizens, after all, not Americans. We don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

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