The smell followed the man onto the train, a sharp metallic odour that clung to his body as intimately as his own shadow. A black smell edged with silver.
Elaine Randolf, who was sitting in one of the window seats reading a book, glanced up, disturbed by his arrival, and peered out at the man from beneath the heavy fall of her fringe. A druggie, was her initial thought. Just my luck. Closely followed by: He smells how that Charlie Brown character (Pig-Pen?) looks.
The man stood just inside the doorway. An expression of indecision on his face as he looked first to the right, then to the left, eyeing up the carriage; empty apart from Elaine.
He was slightly taller than the norm. Lean. His dark hair parted in the middle and falling to his jawline in lank rats tails; a couple of wayward strands hung across his face. He was dressed in a black donkey jacket and jeans, scuffed work boots on his feet. In his right hand he was holding a navy blue sports holdall, a white Nike tick on its side. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. And if he had, thought Elaine, then by all appearances he had slept in his clothes.
But it was the man's eyes that caught her attention.
They were tainted with confusion. Troubled.
There was no other word to describe them. Elaine had come across the word countless times in the books she read so avidly...but had never thought it could be applied so fittingly to someone that lived in the 'real' world. How wrong she'd been.
This stranger's eyes were haunted, and if she had to hazard a guess, she would guess the ghosts that did the haunting were mean ones, with sharp claws and even sharper teeth. In the same instant she realized what the smell was. It was fear. The stench of human fear. And as the man began to walk towards her - following the path of his dark haunted eyes - she knew her own eyes had grown big and wide. Saucer eyes. She dropped her gaze back to the book on her lap, and prayed silently. Please God let him pass me by. Please don't let him sit near me.
But of course she knew it was only in stories that prayers got answered, so of course, just as she knew he would, the man stopped at her shoulder. His voice was dog-weary when he spoke. Spent. "That seat taken?"
Without lifting her eyes - her saucer eyes - from the pages of her book, Elaine shook her head; not trusting herself to speak.
The man sank down into the seat opposite her, his bent knees inches from her own. From behind the fall of her fringe she saw him drop the sports bag to the floor and kick it with the backs of his heels until it was half hidden beneath his seat. The bag nestled between a couple of stubbed out cigarette ends and an empty paper Coke-a-Cola cup; a bent straw poking up through the plastic lid.
A heavy silence descended, broken only by the whine of the train as it picked up speed.
Elaine stared down at her book, pretending to read, but all the meaning had gone out of the words. After barely two minutes had passed she could resist it no longer, and looked up.
The man had relaxed back against his seat, eyes closed. His forearms rested on his lap, his hands - swaying slightly from the motion of the train - hung down loosely between his thighs. His breathing was slow and heavy. Now that his eyes were shut, all expression had slipped from his face, and Elaine was surprised to realize he was younger than she had at first supposed. He appeared no more than twenty-one or twenty-two. Just a couple of years younger than herself. What on earth could have happened to this dark young stranger to have troubled him so deeply? Well, she guessed that was a question she would never know the answer to.
She gave a breathy little sigh and relaxed back against her own seat, staring out of the window at the passing scenery. Dusk had fallen and all outside was drab and grey. She would be glad to get home to a mug of coffee and her cat, Bocelli. Only two more stops to go. She let her mind drift, lose itself in the labyrinth of her thoughts, only to have her reverie broken minutes later by the train coming to a halt at the first of those two stops. Sittingbourne.
The man opposite her sat up straight as the train came to a standstill. He run a hand through his hair, making it stick up for a moment in crazy spikes before the weight of it once more pulled it down around his face. Without further ado he leapt to his feet - jarring hard against Elaine's knees as he did so - and headed for the doorway. Elaine watched him go, rubbing at her bruised legs.
A young man with the pressure of the world on his shoulders.
Something was wrong with the picture of him leaving the train. Something was missing.
She leant forward, grabbed hold of the handles and pulled the holdall towards her, rising to her feet at the same time. She flopped back down. The bag was heavier than she'd expected. What did he have in there? The crown jewels? Her frown deepened. She pushed the thought hurriedly away and got back to her feet.
The young man was just stepping down onto the platform. He still had one foot on the train and one hand was still gripping the metal pole beside the doorway, when she called out.
"Hey - you forgot your bag."
The man froze.
In ultra slow motion he turned towards her. If Elaine had thought his eyes were haunted before, she had been mistaken. They were not haunted. They were possessed.
Possessed by the undead spirits themselves. As she watched, the man's face drained of colour, leaving his skin a ashen corpselike grey. He started to shake his head, small barely perceptible movements at first, then stronger and faster. His lips formed the shape of one word - No. The word seemed to spur him into action. He scrambled from the train, almost tripping over his own feet in his haste, regained his balance, and set off along the platform at a shambling run. He did not look back once.
Elaine stood in the aisle of the empty carriage with the stranger's bag in her hand and watched him go.
Her eyes were once again as big and round as saucers.
She was five minutes away from her own stop when Elaine decided to open the bag.
It hadn't been an easy decision to make, but in the end good old human curiosity had taken over and made the decision for her. She reached across, grasped the small metal tag of the zipper between her thumb and forefinger and pulled it open.
The bag was stuffed with money.
Five and ten pound notes.
Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe.
She quickly zipped the bag up again, fingers shaking now and her heart hammering against her chest. From the fiery heat radiating from her face, she knew she had gone bright red.
"Oh.My.God." She said aloud.
Where the hell had it all come from?
Stolen. It must be stolen. That's why the young man had wanted rid of it. The police were most probably hot on his heels. Following right now.
Elaine actually turned her head and looked back over her shoulder, certain she would see a burly police officer striding up the aisle towards her, handcuffs extended, truncheon raised - did the police even carry truncheons these days? - but all that stared back at her were row upon row of empty seats.
She'd have to hand it in. as soon as she got off the train she'd have to hand it in.
She shook her head.
That was no good. They'd ask questions...and her fingerprints would be all over the holdall by now.
Besides - said a sneaky inner voice - apart from the guy, who knows you've got it?
Elaine felt her face grow warmer still.
Of course you could. Some of it at least. Test the water. Spend a bit. See what happens.
Elaine shook her head again, but not so vehemently this time.
Maybe she could.
Test the water.
So to speak.
But the bag? The police might be looking for the bag.
Swap it then.
Elaine looked across at her own bag sitting next to her on the other side of the seat; a big roomy cloth bag, one she'd bought from Accessorize so she'd no need to use environmentally-damaging carrier bags. It looked plenty big enough.
If you're going to do it, you need to do it quick. Your stop's coming up.
Elaine didn't need to be told twice.
TO BE CONTINUED.....