Fire At Will
The plains were flooded. The railway was elevated just enough from the still, dark water that the trains were still running (fortunately for them). Lira had thought that the way the land rushed away beyond their car - the last before a small, exposed partial balcony - was not unlike an open portfolio spreading darkly away from the spine of the tracks. Her eyes, without thinking, searched the watery ground on either side as if to locate the encoded message that told them what to do next. It took her back to routine, to method; to the visual of the dossier laying supine on the tabletop rather than the rushing landscape and the uncertainty of their future.
"What's wrong?" Paul said from beside her, his voice so low as to almost blend in with the constant roar of the wheels on the tracks.
"I feel as if I've forgotten something." Lira responded absently. He gave her a brief but questioning expression that she saw from the corner of her eye.
"It's not important." She added, turning her head in his direction but not looking at him.
"It's because they didn't send us the next assignment." He continued, his matching absent tone underlain with a terse matter-of-factness that told her he was as agitated by the lack of communication from their organization as she was. It had never happened before, that their next steps were not assigned them before the inevitable flight from the aftermath of a job. Locations, directions, accommodations, caveats and the next sordid project were always laid out efficiently, reducing the complexity of tasks and emotions related to she and her husband's criminal occupation to simple, effortless formulas for success. All that she and Paul had to have was the confidence that they could, under the cloud of their combined training and experience, fulfill the instructions sent to them.
Here, though, there was no trust in the future, no feeling of a hand larger than themselves sheltering them from the backlash. They may have been followed, the safety net of the organization may not be invisibly beneath them, and most pressingly they didn't know where they were going or what they were going to do when they got there.
"Mm." Lira responded, trying not to give a face to her thoughts and to go back to the tattered novel open in her lap for the last few miles.
"Maybe it was just intercepted." Paul's voice again invaded her uncertain thoughts. Reassurance had never been among the host of his many talents, and Lira felt her nerves twitch in irritation. She closed the book against her left thigh, working her jaw for a second as she glanced out the window, away from him.
"I'd prefer not to talk about it."
Paul just glanced up at her from the newspaper she knew he was too wound-tight to be reading, silent. She stood.
"I'm going to go get something to eat." Her voice sounded tiny and dry over the sound of the tracks beneath them; Lira was caught in a rare but unsavory moment of feeling small and afraid. If her husband registered it, he didn't let it show. She wasn't sure if it were an insensitivity, or a mercy, on his part, or which she would have preferred had she the choice. Sliding away from their adjoined seats, Lira took a deep breath in an unsuccessful search for calm, and began making her way up the swaying train toward the meal car.
She found herself disturbed enough that nothing sounded remotely appetizing. Her stomach was unsettled in such a fashion that she could not easily distinguish from hunger or motion-sickness. After a few indecisive moments, Lira came away with a black coffee and a pocketed package of soda crackers that she'd probably give to Paul. It was a walk of several cars in the long train to get back to the one that she and her husband had to themselves... the train as a whole was almost entirely empty; she hadn't passed more than a half-dozen other passengers on the walk up to the meal-car. The one directly preceding it had been totally vacant.
On crossing the unsteady threshold between the two cars, Lira paused to notice a man sitting at the back of that car. She didn't recall noticing him pass her in the meal car, and, she thought with a flickering moment of pride at the truth of the sentiment, very few things slipped past her attention. He was dressed in black clothing, unseasonably thick for the heavy, humid weather that had swollen the area's already distressed rivers. His hair was disheveled, dark circles smudged under his darker eyes as if a finger had painted a line of soot beneath the thin skin. More disconcertingly, he was staring right at her.
Coffee clasped between her hands, Lira hesitated. That lambent aura of pride in the back of her mind faded like a flame put out in a cold hearth; now, perhaps more than ever, she should not have been caught off guard under any circumstances, nor should she have let that show in even a second of faltering, but it was too late now. It would be worse to turn around and go back. Lira ducked her head slightly and walked down the length of the car, brushing the fingertips of one hand along the row of empty seats opposite the stranger.
He stood when she was several paces from the end of the car, planting himself firmly in the aisle between her and the exit. Lira stopped, staring levelly into his eyes. She could feel every fiber of body sharpening into a nervous awareness, ready to react.
"Pardon me, sir." She said, keeping her voice passive. The stranger did not react. They stood, for several seconds, at apparent impasse.
"Can I help you with something?" The question sounded foolish once out of her mouth, but she didn't let her gaze waver, arching a brow. Still, he did not react.
Another long moment of silence, filled up by the sound of the wheels, rang hollowly between them.
The stranger, without taking his eyes from hers, reached into his coat. Lira froze, taking in every movement with a sudden, nightmare clarity, ready at a twitch to dive for and disable his weapon.
Without speaking, perhaps without breathing, the dark-eyed man withdrew a black, unmarked portfolio from beneath the heavy mantle. He extended it flat in the space between them. Astonished and unblinking, Lira took it from him. He returned to his seat, finally pulling his eyes from her and staring straight ahead. She finally blinked her eyes once, and it was as if the entire stage had reset; as if the stranger had never moved, as if that very moment had in fact never existed. The one exception was the dossier cold in her hands. She found that she was staring at the exit, watching the other car sway out of rhythm a few feet beyond. Folding the portfolio against her chest, she kept going, walking all the way out to the open-air balcony at the end of the train. Her legs were numb. The scalding-hot sides of the coffee cup she still held felt far-away and unreal.
There was a tense moment. She realized, staring out across the unfamiliar land that she and her husband were putting between themselves and their last job, that when the next assignment had not come, some part of her had lit a flame of hope that there would, in fact, not be another. That they would be free from their life, to go live some innocuous and indefinite existence in anonymity and insulation. Neither of them had known what to do with themselves when the instructions didn't arrive, though. All they knew, as the situation where they had been had begun to destabilize as a result of their dark dealings, was that they had to get out, just like every time before it. Paul had bought tickets on the fastest train, on the longest rail-line, that he could find. They were hurdling away into nowhere.
Out here, the flooded fields were more clear. They looked like water, rather than sheets of glass or foil, and one could see the ripples that disturbed the stagnant surface as the train screamed past overhead. The anxious sensation untied, releasing her. Lira stood straighter in the rush of sound and wind behind the speeding train. She could feel herself pushing through herself, like a plant drawing up water into its jealous leaves after a long drought; the real Lira, the one she recognized best, waking up after a troubled sleep.
Shaking her hair out over her shoulders, she turned and caught Paul's eyes through the window. Lira grinned, striding back into the last passenger car of the train with the black portfolio tightly in her fingers.