(Fiction) Stranger on a train

I sprayed bleach solution over everything, just to be safe, before wiping it all down and throwing it in the big rubbish bin behind the fried chicken chain that was closed for the night. I stashed the clothes in my bag. I’d have to dump them elsewhere. Not that I expected a manhunt or anything, but you can’t be too careful. I walked briskly down a quiet street in Queens and didn’t notice anything strange at all until the light on the sidewalk under my feet seemed to dim, as if someone had come up behind me without so much as a breath or shuffle. I spun. But the street was empty. A streetlight had failed just down the road. I kept on, and a few strides later, it happened again. I turned and saw a second lamp dim.

While I contemplated the odds of that, a third went dark, closer still, and I thought some faraway control mechanism had rebooted—or perhaps the lights were going through a maintenance cycle, or whatever, and in a few moments, all would be reliably lit again. I started walking as the fourth lamp went dark behind me, and then the fifth directly over my head. I looked up just in time to see its orange coils fade and leave me in a cone of shadow.

There was now a long gap on one side of the lit street, as if someone had cut the light like a cake and removed a rectangular slice from the air. I got that prickly sensation then, like when you go into the basement by yourself. You always know it isn’t rational, but you rush out all the same. And I did. I rushed. I started walking briskly. A couple times my stride turned to a brief trot. I made it up the stairs and through the stile and onto the platform just in time to see the train coming, which was good because I was completely alone there. I saw the headlights come around a bend in the tracks and I heard the screech of the wheels and I relaxed, even though I knew I was being silly. I boarded the middle car, which was empty. I took a seat and leaned my head back and shut my eyes. It was probably the only time in my life I was happy to be bathed in strong fluorescent light.

With my head back and eyes closed, I became vaguely aware that the ambient light around me had changed again. I opened my eyes. Not only was my car empty, it seemed there was also no one in the adjacent cars on either side, forward or back. The second car toward the rear was completely dark, as were all those that followed. I couldn’t see any illumination except the passing lights of the tunnel. It was weird. I thought for a second that somehow I’d stepped onto an out-of-service train by mistake.

When the lights in the next car back flickered and went dark, I sat up. A moment later, the lights over my head stuttered and I blinked—just as a sharp-dressed black man stepped through the rear door. He was maybe mid-60s and very gaunt. He wore an expensive charcoal suit, and wore it well. It had gray pinstripes and looked tailored. His necktie was very narrow, almost completely straight, and it matched the color of the suit. He wore a brimmed hat with a satin band and he walked with a fancy cane that tapped the floor with each step. I also heard the clink of coins in his pocket. His cuff links, belt, and shoes were all some kind of reptile hide—polished and shiny. He looked like a cross between a pimp and an undertaker.

“Miss,” he said to me, tipping his hat politely.

People don’t usually talk to each other on the train. But then, the two of us were the only ones within sight of each other. I assumed he came forward to escape whatever malfunction had blinded the rear cars. In the circumstances, it almost seemed ruder for him not to acknowledge me, and I responded with a polite, tight-lipped smile.

He sat across from me, one seat down, and settled with a sigh like he’d been walking for hours. The change in his pocket shifted noisily, and it sounded as if he carried all his money in coin. He took off his hat and set it on the seat next to him. He had hardly any hair left. What was there was gray-white, same as the band on his hat.

He caught me looking at his boots.

“Alligator hide,” he said.

He had a mouthful of gold and yellow teeth. He pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped something off the toe of his boot.

“Under-appreciated, if you ask me. It’s tough. But flexible. And it gets downright soft over time.”

He had a throaty voice, not so much like a smoker as much as a man who’d spent his entire life shouting—an auctioneer perhaps, or a blues man.

“It’s certainly distinctive,” I said.

He nodded to me. “Just so.”

The shaft of his cane was solid black and lustrous, but I couldn’t tell if it was painted wood or obsidian. He held it loosely by the neck and rocked it back and forth. The tip was polished silver. The knob on top was a grinning skull.

The train slowed and he looked like he was going to get off. Then he stopped. He looked at me.

“This your stop?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Just a few more,” I said with another polite smile.

He sat back. “Then I’ll ride witcha.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

The train stopped and the doors opened, but my companion stayed put.

“I’m old fashioned,” he said in that throaty voice. “I know it ain’t popular. I know these days old men like me are supposed to let young ladies like yourself take care of themselves.” He shook his head. “But that’s not how I was raised.”

The movement of his jaw when he spoke pulled his skin taut over his skull, like there wasn’t much of anything underneath, like he was all bones and his skin was just as much a part of his clothes as the pinstripes.

I shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

The train started moving again and we sat in silence as it rocked back and forth over the tracks.

“Miss,” he said, leaning forward cautiously, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but are you okay?”

“Me?” I frowned. “I’m fine. Why?”

“You sure? You’re not in a spot of trouble, maybe?”

My face turned sour.

“It’s just,” he said, motioning to my bag on the seat next to me, “I couldn’t help but notice a ski mask there when I sat down just now.”

I closed the top by turning the handles over each other.

“Now, I know it wasn’t polite to look. But here you are on the late, late, late train.” He chuckled. Then he motioned to my head. “With a little bit of perspiration across your brow, and I thought—”

“I was out,” I said. “At a club. It was hot.”

He eyed my bag.

“It was a costume party.”

“Odd month for costumes.”

“Newest summer craze,” I said. “All the cool kids are doing it.”

I looked around the empty car and wondered how rude it would be if I changed seats.

He smiled in understanding, sat back, and crossed his legs, which revealed more of his fancy boots. The stitching formed skulls and flowers near the top.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.

“What makes you say that?”

“Your accent.” He twirled his cane in his right hand. “Very faint. If you was older, I’d say you’d been here awhile. But you young yet, which means you worked hard at it—putting the past behind you. How’d you do it? Lemme guess. Lots of American TV.”

“Deadly, but effective,” I joked. I turned my face toward the front of the train to signal the end of polite conversation.

“But just there under the surface.” He pointed the skull knob toward me and made wave shapes with it in the air. “There’s a little something else. Like how you say ‘rubbish.’”

I scowled again and thought back over the conversation. Had I said rubbish?

“Here they say ‘trash,’” he explained. “And it’s not ‘flat.’ It’s ‘apartment.’”

My brow stayed knit. I hadn’t said either of those words. Had I? “Um. Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“My guess, you’re from Hong Kong,” he said. Then he added, “What brings you to New York?

Only he didn’t say it in English. He said it in perfect Hong Kong Cantonese.

I mean, perfect.

I stared. Call me racist, but there’s just something terribly incongruous about a black man speaking Chinese like a native. He had no accent. None.

“School,” I answered. I glanced to the route map above the car doors and confirmed there were just two more stops.

We were quiet a few more moments as the train slowed and the next station was announced. I wondered if I should hop off. He must have saw it on my face because he sat back and relaxed considerably.

“Oh, don’t mind me. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

I watched the doors open.

I watched them close again.

The train started moving, and we rocked with it for another minute or so.

“It’s just really something,” he said softly. “After all these years.”

I didn’t look at him. It was way late and I’d been rushing on my feet for hours. I was tired and I just wanted to get home.

“You should know I ain’t never met the man, ’cept once in passing. Like this.” He moved the cane back and forth between us.

I had no idea who he was talking about. I got up and stood by the door. It didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt me. It seemed like he was just old and lonely. But I was ready to bolt just in case.

He brushed lint off his suit pants like he was annoyed. He replaced his hat on his head. He took out his handkerchief again and polished the silver skull at the top of his cane. Then he stood and faced me.

He seemed taller then, like the tip of his hat was brushing the ceiling. He brandished the cane. “But here he thinks he can come into my house . . . And take what’s mine.”

The announcement for the next stop came over the speakers and I felt the train slowing. I gripped the bar by the door with two hands. The lights in the car flickered. The ones in the rear cars all returned and suddenly everything was a little brighter. Then it was too bright.

“You tell him,” he said to me. “You tell him when you see him that I’m ready. And don’t you think for one damned second that that thing”—he jabbed the tip of his cane at my side—“will protect you.”

I flinched, but it was unnecessary. The rounded silver tip stopped dead at my skin as if striking the walls of the train. I thought—but couldn’t be sure—that I even heard the clink of metal.

I was freaking as the train squeaked to a stop. I was practically bouncing up and down for the doors to open. When they finally did, I made right for the stairs. I only glanced back once.

The old man had removed his hat with one hand. He swung it wide and bowed formally as he called after me.

“See you real soon, Cerise.”

opening to “Curse of the Red Dagger,” the second course of my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Miranda Meeks