Chapter 1 (complete):
August 25th, 2017, London, Victoria Station, Morning
I never go back on my word because a promise is a promise. But still, rushing to catch a vintage Express train instead of using a modern aircraft seemed ludicrous to me. Granted, I wasn’t laughing last night when my New York to London flight took off with a ninety-minute delay.
Like a maniac, I ran across London’s Victoria Station, afraid that I’d be too late to reach Platform No. 2 in time for my departure. I caught my breath for a second and glimpsed at the legendary train up ahead, painted in milk-chocolate brown and custard gold. Further up, the stationmaster, in full livery, waited for the passengers to complete their boarding procedures. At a small temporary desk, over which stood a banner reading Venice Simplon Orient Express, a steward was greeting the last incoming travelers for the VSOE while handing out glasses of champagne. I, Mara Ellington, was about to embark on a trip across Europe aboard one of the most illustrious trains in history.
I resumed my sprint, racing past the different gates. Platform No.2, along with Platform No.1, stood at the extreme end of the station. As I approached, my eyes began to sting and water. After a couple of useless blinks, I had to stop again as my throat also became irritated, as if I had been running at a breakneck speed for hours. The pause allowed me to rummage for my ticket in my overstuffed Chanel purse, but my eyes burned like hell now. I lifted my head and wrinkled my nose from the strong acrid smell coming from a white cloud of smoke spreading on the nearby platform about fifty feet away.
The noise level in the station moved up a couple of decibels as I got closer to my destination. A moment later, dozens of travellers were running in all directions, some coughing and crouching. The chaos was denser up ahead at the front of the platform. By now, whistles and automated alarms were ringing all around the platform. I didn’t have time to examine the scene further as something forceful yanked me down from behind.
The impact reverberated in my skull when I hit the concrete floor and within seconds, a sharp pain detonated in the back of my head as dark spots flashed in front of me. Did I black out? I couldn’t be sure, but my eyes struggled to focus.
The hard surface of the concrete offered no comfort to my aching head and stiff back. What in the world had hit me? It appeared that I was the only one to have been a victim to this invisible earthquake, judging by my quick survey of my surroundings. The white cloud at the next platform had dissipated. Dozens of uniformed security men arrived, running and barking orders.
Everything happened so fast and l still had no clue what I was doing on the floor.
I took a visual inventory of my body parts, checking for visible injuries. I lay sprawled with my left knee up while my other leg was stretched out at an awkward angle. The slit of my skirt had ripped further up, revealing the full length of my thigh. I pushed the now messy tangles off my flushed face. At least I wasn’t bleeding. There was nothing graceful about my fall. I kept looking around to see what had hit me. My purse's contents, scattered everywhere around me, had likely flown out during the fall. My carry-on had tipped on the floor. As I turned my head the other way, I saw a man crouched beside me. His turned down face was hidden by the hat, sunglasses and bandana he wore over his nose. I couldn’t discern much of his cast down face. Following the direction of his eyes, I caught a pair of hairy hands and a flash of silver, but before I could make any sense of what I saw he was already up and running away toward the exits. Had he stolen anything from me?
“Hey! Wait! Stop!” I croaked, unable to yell louder because my throat still burned from the scratch of the pungent smoke. I coughed several times and tried to get up to run after the likely thief, but a fit a dizziness prevented me.
This whole situation was beyond crazy. Had the smoke been caused by a fire or had a bomb exploded? I struggled to get up again, pulling down my skirt while straightening myself up. Upon sitting upright, I checked my head, sliding my fingers over the painful small lump forming on the back of my skull. Ouch. A steward rushed in my direction but someone else got to me first.
Dressed in black from head to toe, the approaching man reached me with a swift grace and leaned over me. Definitely eye candy. Mid thirties, tousled brown hair, and a light stubble on his jaw. He was sporting a rugged sophistication typical of publicity shots for Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine.
"Are you hurt, Miss?" He frowned with an unusual pair of green eyes.
"No, I don't think so, but I think someone may have robbed me. I caught him hovering over my purse for a second but he ran out when I called after him.”
He studied me from top to bottom, like a doctor assessing a patient for injuries. Satisfied with his findings, his frown morphed into another kind of expression. This one had nothing professional about it. A slow grin eased his well-defined jaw, a hint of the mischievous nature hiding behind his features. I could have sworn that he was giving me a quick overall glance as if assessing my figure!
The man certainly had an imposing presence. Measuring, I’d say, six foot one, with a lean but athletic build, he gave a commanding presence despite the laid-back attitude he had first shown. Not what one would call a beefcake, but he sure exhibited an aura of strength and determination. The easiness with which he could shift from a devil-may-care feline grace to a calculating predator disconcerted me. My primal instincts warmed me against his magnetic animal charm. I hated to admit it, but I was ill equipped to deal with such a potent combination.
“Did you see what he looked like? Which way did he go?” he asked, his attitude now turned all businesslike.
“Gray trench coat, baseball cap and a bandana over his nose. He ran off toward the exits before I could stop him,” I said.
The handsome man turned and scanned the area, but it was already too late. Likely, the mystery man with the bandana must be far away by now.
“Here, let me help you...Miss?” He bent, handing me with precise dexterity all the items from my purse that had flown down on the floor.
“Ellington, Mara Ellington.” With haste, I stuffed the items back into my purse. When he handed me my wallet, I opened every section to take an inventory.
“Anything missing?” A brief look of concern creased his brow.
By this time, a security officer was arriving in my direction while an army of other ones where bringing order back on Platform No.1.
I frowned, closing my wallet. “No, there is nothing missing.”
Now, I should have been relieved, but I was not. This incident was beyond strange. Someone must have pushed me down. This couldn’t be an accident. But if it was not to rob me, what was this about? I scanned the crowd in case I spotted the man I thought was running away, but it was in vain. There wastoo much commotion with the chaos going on in the next platform and whoever he was, he must have used the disruption to disappear quickly.
“Did you see the man running away from me?”
“No, I'm sorry, I was busy helping the team of security agents by Platform No.1.”
“What happened over there?” I pointed my chin in that direction.
“It’s still under investigation, but it looks like someone threw a tear gas bomb.”
He leaned over, offering me help to get up. His large hands were strong and sure, but the contact of his skin shot a flash of tingling electricity through me. He lifted me without the least bit of effort although my legs were still unsteady. His tall and solid frame exceeded my height by a good six inches.
He ran his right hand along the back of my head. “Maybe you should have yourself check out by the paramedics over there.” He jutted his head toward Platform No. 1. “You might have a concussion.”
His proximity sped my heart rate and flushed me with erratic heat waves followed by cold sweats. Let's stay calm, I reminded myself.
“No. I think I’ll be fine.”
“Well, have a safe trip, miss,” he said, extending his hand. His eyes bore into mine as if he was looking for something. Under different circumstances, I might have looked for an
excuse to prolong the conversation, but I couldn’t find anything smart to say as my mind remained still half dumb from my fall.
I stared at his outstretched hand and mumbled a stupid “Thanks for your help, sir.”
“No problem, and stay out of trouble.” He winked, flashing me a killer smile before leaving to rejoin the team of security agents and police force busy with the nearby commotion. Because he wore no uniform, I gathered he wasn’t part of either group, but still his attitude hinted he might be someone working on official business here. That’s it. That’s what I should have asked him about, but it was too late; he was already out of ear shot.
Perhaps I was suffering from a distorted imagination because I had been half knocked out, but the moment his warm fingers left my hand, I almost missed their contact on my flesh for some inexplicable reason. I dismissed the fleeting sensation.
I must have been jittery from the accumulated stress built over these last few weeks. To start, three weeks ago my lifelong best friend and confidant, Josie, who was supposed to accompany me on this trip, had passed away as a result of a car accident. I felt responsible for her death because I’m the one who had been driving that fateful night. There was not a single day that passed since when I did not feel the snaking tightness of remorse. I didn’t want to go on this journey alone, feeling sorry for myself, but she made me promise, before she died, to go on with this trip as planned. I guess she thought it would give me time to get over another failed relationship and give me the occasion to travel.
Two months ago I had caught my boyfriend cheating on me. Could this get any worse? Josie always complained that as an air traffic controller, I insured the safety of thousands of airline passengers daily, but the irony is that I seldom traveled myself. At least, when I arrived at my final destination, I’d get to reunite with my globe trotter elder sister Sylvia whom I hadn’t seen for two years.
As I walked along the side of the train glancing through its windows, I noticed that almost everyone had already boarded. Most travellers were darting looks toward Platform No.1 as disorder still reigned in the station. Like me, they must have been wondering if they would be asked to disembark and evacuate the train station.
A sophisticated socialite, in her sixties, judging by her Botox-filled face, readjusted her fox fur stole as she stepped out of the wagon-lit car. Poor animal; he hung from her shoulders like a flat roadkill. She had a quick word with the young steward, who was still waiting for me to go on board. She smiled with compassion in my direction. However, on reflection, her arched pencil traced eyebrows betrayed more a look of impatience as a tight calculated smile completed the studied poise. That was the cue for the steward to take a few steps in my direction.
I darted a last look at the handsome man who had helped me. He was busy discussing with what appeared to be a SWAT team who had arrived on the other platform. He was pointing at different members of the security team of the train as if giving them orders and directions. Now and then, he tilted his head to the side and touched his ear with his index finger to listen better to whoever was talking to him in his Bluetooth earpiece. During that time, the public announcement speaker called for the final boarding for the VSOE. The loud whistle of the train almost made me jump out of my skin. As if I wasn’t on edge enough, I leaped up with the sudden pressure release from the bottom of the car stationed beside me.
I had not boarded yet, and if I didn’t hurry, I’d miss the train. Get a grip, Mara, I chastised myself. To make matters worse, Mrs. “Nosy Fox Stole” was now peering at me with full attention only a short distance away. No doubt she had seen my tumble. The young steward, supervising the boarding of the tardy passengers, slid another glance my way.
“Miss, I have received the authorization by the train station security team to finalize the boarding. Please allow me to show you to your cabin,” said the young and eager steward.
As I reached my assigned seat situated in the Phoenix car, I remained perplexed about that teargas bomb. Since the train station was not evacuated, I would think it was because it must have been an isolated event. Perhaps even a prank. The gentleman with unforgettable green eyes was the platform about fifty feet away and turned at this moment in my direction, branding a permanent image in my memory.
"Welcome aboard, I hope you’ll enjoy your journey,” greeted the steward while helping me put my carry-on up on the luggage rack. His sharp royal blue uniform was trimmed with gold buttons and trimming. It even included a golden VSOE logo embroidered badge.
With a sigh, I half collapsed on the plush upholstered sofa and only admired the shiny polished intricate woodwork of the cabin’s cherry wood panels with mild interest. My nose detected a faint mixture of wood polishing wax and the delicate aroma of fresh-cut flowers from a dainty silver vase decorating a small folding table by the window. These elegant touches, aimed for the sophisticated travellers, should have enthralled or at least relaxed me, but I couldn’t appreciate the rich appointments of the fabled train and this magical moment because my thoughts kept drifting elsewhere.
What had happened on the platform before boarding? Shaking my head, it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t dwell too much on the incident and instead focus on the refined atmosphere of this compartment, straight out of the Golden Age of fine traveling. This made my unusual encounters appear rather absurd now even if I couldn’t dismiss it all together. Who was this stranger who had fled from me at the station? Why did his behavior seem so peculiar? Was this a rioter who had decided to go for a quick steal during the commotion on the platform? My thoughts replayed my meeting with the handsome man from the station on a non-stop loop. Like involuntary flashbacks assaulting my mind, I kept seeing his forest green eyes assessing me. His virile scent had stirred something strange in me. He had not worn a police or security officer uniform, but his tone had sounded business like and official when he said “under investigation” and “someone threw a tear gas bomb”. I assumed he worked with the official local authority or security agents.
I wouldn’t say the events on the platform left me uneasy and worried, because I don't do emotional. I always pride myself on being considered quite a level-headed person, a fast decision maker and a no nonsense kind of woman. At least, that’s what the guys say about me at the John F. Kennedy Airport control tower. Because I juggle over fifty aircrafts per hour in my designated space area, there is no room for sentimentality when I’m dealing with thousands of lives that depend on the efficiency and safety of my split-second decisions.
But then again, I had made the wrong decision that disastrous night a little over three weeks ago. That split second decision had cost my best childhood friend her life because of my fault. I would never forgive myself for offering to drive her fancy vintage Porsche for the first time. I didn’t want her to take the wheel. She had had too much to drink. Instead of calling a taxi, I had to be so helpful and take charge of the situation. That was until our encounter with an out of control ten wheeled truck. While I came out with nothing more than a few scratches and bruises, she died the following day from internal injuries and post-operative complications.
So here I was, miserable and gripped with an uncontrollable guilt over Josie’s death when I was supposed to be enjoying the trip of a lifetime with my best friend. I could only hope that my promise to go ahead with this journey gave her some measure of comfort.
Now, after my delayed flight, arriving in London’s Victoria station in the middle of a tear gas bomb attack and being thrown to the floor, I was even less enthused by the prospect of this journey.
I stepped out of my cabin to familiarize myself with the train. Strolling down the hallway, I crossed some of my fellow passengers milling about.
Their attires, from casual chic to downright eccentric, suggested they hailed from the middle to upper class of society. Most traveled in pairs except for Mrs. Nosy Fox Stole, who seemed to travel alone. The spitting image of an old movie star who had had too many facelifts. Acted like one too. I spotted a few couples of honeymooners or lovebirds who couldn't keep their eyes or hands off each other. I scanned the station from a window in the narrow wood paneled corridor, getting lost in the sight of the now returning usual hustle and bustle of the crowd moving in different directions to catch their own trains. A black spot in the back of the scenery on the other side of Platform No. 2 attracted my attention. Against my better judgment, I focused on the dark-clad figure in the distance.
The train departed with a smooth but slow start. As we began to roll out of the station, I spotted Mr. Jungle eyes through the window—his eyes indeed had a fascinating leafy green iridescence about them. He was in deep discussion with two police officers. He was touching his ear piece again to hear better since the station was noisy at this time of day. He pointed toward this train. The security staff turned to face my carriage. No, that's not it. They were looking ... at me. Why? I wish I had asked him his name. In hindsight, his attitude had seemed official, even if laid-back.
So what if this trip was off to a bad start? As we rolled out of the station, I was almost positive that my inauspicious start wouldn’t be the preview for the rest of trip. It might even turn out to be something funny to write about. I returned to my cabin and pulled my spring bound travel journal out of my carry-on and laid it on the seat beside me but left it there as I lacked inspiration to record my rocky start. My heart and eyes filled with a surge of sadness. It was a gift from Josie along with the Chanel purse she had given me on my last birthday in view of this trip. The metallic sound of the rolling wheels on the tracks gradually increased their rhythm. On Platform No. 1, now a fair distance away from my window, things appeared to have settled. The paramedics still helped a few people. I gathered that it was not some kind of major terrorist attack. Otherwise, I they would have surely evacuated the station. Still, had I not been afraid to miss my train, I would have liked to have gone there and offer help to the dozens of people who had been indisposed by the gas.
I reverted my eyes to the journal on the seat with its antique world map on the cover. Oh, Josie. My mind returned to that intensive care room three weeks ago.
"Mara, don’t you cancel the trip; it doesn’t make sense." Josie inhaled another ragged breath through her nasal tube. “I know the trip was my idea, but I really think you need to go on with our plan, now more than ever. Just imagine that I'll be there with you. Do it for me, Mara. Please.”
She had every type of tube coming in and out of her; oxygen tube, a drainage tube, a catheter, several intravenous lines, along with a cardiac monitor. She had sustained major internal injuries, and the prognosis was poor.
"Josie, come on. That’s ridiculous. I won't enjoy the trip if I'm mourn— if you're not there. You know me. I'm into planes and modernity, not slow trains crowded with fans of Agatha Christie novels."
"Listen, Mara, there is nothing much I can do at this point except think”—she paused for a moment to catch her breath— “and I think you need to take this trip. Can’t explain it, but you know what they say? It's not the destination that counts; it’s the journey.”
Josie was always good at manipulating me, and she managed to do it again despite being shattered by the accident.
"Ok. Ok. I'll do it,” I relented, defeated.
"You'd better. Now get out of here and start packing. I’ll phone you tonight,” she promised. She never called, but her mother did, with the heart-breaking news.
The outskirts of London were blurry when I realized I had been crying. Josie had been like a sister to me. Better than a sister, in fact. As a result of being eight years older, my sister Sylvia was hardly ever home when I was a kid. As soon as she graduated from college, she left to travel around the world, chasing scoops as a foreign correspondent for a well known TV news channel.
Josie, bless her soul, had helped me through thick and thin. She’d been my rock through the trials of adolescence and later with the challenges and perks of facing adulthood. Being a loner, I did not easily make friends so now that she was gone, who would I turn to?
My recent bad luck with my last relationship was a fiasco I had not foreseen. But then again, whenever I ended up being attracted to a man, either I had misread their intention or I was told I was too independent, which left me wondering what I did wrong. Repeatedly.
I took out my pocket edition of Murder on the Orient-Express by Agatha Christie. I had started to read it earlier on the plane. This was another promise I'd made to Josie after much pestering on her part. She was such a fan of the classic ‘Who done it’ book. I seldom had the patience to be at the mercy of authors who tease their captive readers into a guessing game until the last page.
But unlike me, Josie devoured those fiction pieces with an insatiable appetite. Actually, the whole trip idea had revolved around her love for this murder mystery novel. Ok, I'll admit it, I was also now curious to know what all the fuss was about.
During this time at Victoria station, Drake Steinfield, an FBI Counter-terrorist special agent working in association with Interpol, was in a heated phone discussion with his colleague and friend, Agent Jeff Thornhill. The latter worked at the Headquarters of Operations, an FBI International Office Division in New York.
"No, I’m still waiting for London’s forensics to analyze the tear gas grenade for fingerprints, but there is something else. Someone on Platform No. 2 may have deliberately thrown a woman on the ground to make it look like a robbery. She confirmed that none of her personal items were missing. The man was already too far away for me to attempt a pursuit, but something’s not adding up here.”
“You could have delegated,” said Jeff.
“No. I didn’t have time with the incident taking place on the next platform. Maybe it’s just a hunch, but could you get me a profile ASAP. Mara Ellington, about 27 years old, Caucasian. Likely unmarried. Educated, American accent. Booked Sleeping Car No. 3504; I got confirmation from the train master. I need maximum info on this passenger.”
“Where is she heading?” asked Jeff.
“Paris, Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est. Notify the authorities along that route too. Increase security levels in both train stations. Ok, talk to you later," Drake said before hanging up.
He ran a nervous hand through his dark walnut colored hair, exasperated. He'd been planning this mission for eight months, and there was no excuse for any glitch to happen. But regardless of all the precautions Drake had taken since he’d been following the notorious Al-Qaeda Islamic extremist and his web of followers, the criminal escaped his vigilance. When will we nail this man and bring him to justice? In addition to being on top of the list of the most wanted terrorists in Europe and the United States, he kept evading his traps, despite the most elaborated plans to dismantle his organization. This failure to bring down Omar Ahmed Rachid had, in Drake’s eyes, discredited his other accomplishments as far as his other terrorist captures. The notorious man was his target, and he had managed, yet again, to slip right through his fingers.
Drake counted on this mission to advance his career and stop the activities of this criminal. How many lives were still in danger because he had failed to catch him? He didn't know if he was more angry at the elusive terrorist or at himself for losing his best chance to neutralize one of the most vicious leaders of an extremist Al Queda branch.
There was something amiss with this botched mission at Victoria Station, but a tear gas grenade and no bomb? That didn’t make sense unless his usual source had been wrong about Rachid intending to make his attack in this Station. He would not dwell on the twisted mind of Rachid, who was likely finding the irony of the situation more than amusing.
Rachid, as usual, ran a well-oiled organization. Drake’s instinct was telling him the tear gas grenade was just a diversion, but to what? The authorities still combed Victoria station in case he had left any bombing devices that had not yet been found. But then again, the eel was an astute plotter who liked to innovate with the way he conducted his attacks. But why the sloppy job this time? It made little sense.
His thoughts reverted to the petite strawberry blonde damsel in distress he had helped at the station. Her whole story about a clumsy tourist or a mugger who stole nothing from her remained in the back of his mind, making him uneasy. Ok, he had felt a strange connection when he helped her up. Despite her obvious embarrassment, she had an air of confidence, and he had not been immune to her large blue-gray eyes and cute freckles. But still, that whole incident with her fall was drilling in the back of his head like a dentist’s tool.
Come on, Steinfield, don’t let a nice pair of legs and a hazy duo of striking liquid sapphires distract you, he scolded himself. When she stared at him with trusting eyes, his usual solid emotional guards had quivered for a fleeting moment. Maybe his problem was that he hadn't been around women for a while.
His last casual affair had ended over a year ago when he’d been on an extended mission in Syria. It finished on a sour note. He had no right to complain. Jamila had been kindhearted and accommodating, although he’d never made her promises regarding a serious relationship. Commitment never mixed well with the erratic lifestyle he led. What kind of woman would be interested in someone who seldom spent more than a few weeks in the same place? Most of his relationships never survived his constant traveling and unpredictable schedule. On the rare occasion that the lady was willing to stick around, he’d taken matters into his hands. Better to cut her loose to avoid useless suffering on her part. Her part, he repeated to make sure he didn’t confuse as to whose benefit the break-ups were intended for. This was the life he chose, with all its perks and drawbacks. But with ten years behind him as a special agent, he wasn't positive this lifestyle excited him anymore. He used to get off on the next chance to catch and destroy criminal organizations before they could do any damage. He’d vied for the occasion to nail his enemy, the man involved in the destruction of his family, once and for all.
With hindsight, he concluded that out of these ten years on the Counter-terrorist Force, he’d spent six living for the perfect opportunity to ferret out Rachid. But once he’d caught him, what would he do afterward? He was not ready to admit that past that point, he had given little thought about what he wanted to do. However, lately, he’d surprised himself envying his colleague Jeff’s life. The latter, on more than one occasion, bragged about the joy his family brought him. In response, most of the time, Drake made a smart remark about his friend’s too tamed lifestyle. But these past few months, for some inexplicable reason, his mind kept reverting to his partner’s often blissful facial expression whenever he talked about his wife and kids.
There was no point pounding on that question as long as his nemesis was alive and running free.