Underground

The full story is currently off for consideration at a mystery magazine. This is what I posted on Facebook the day I finished typing it. I got the idea one sleepless night in London in 2002. I am hoping it can become a series, especially since I have at least five other plots and locations already in mind!

My best friend Kevin did instantly observe that I had pulled a Hitchcock in this first chapter…

London_Underground_in_motion

Underground

by John Randolph Burrow

© 2009

I

I saw him pick a pocket on Piccadilly Circus and promptly disappear down the Tube, right by Eros. Nobody noticed, except me. I followed him down.

He wasn’t easy to spot, dressed blandly—khaki-colored polo shirt, drab slacks and loafers. But I kept his brown hair in sight and sauntered along: he was in no hurry once he hit the steps heading underground. His queued for the ticket gate and shoved his pass through, plucking it back from the feeder with utter nonchalance, passed through and headed away, amidst a small crowd, toward the Bakerloo line escalator.

I had followed him. At first, I’d been stunned, struck with a distant kind of awe, perhaps, to have actually seen. Not some slow-motion television recreation, but the actual stunt itself.

The distraction had provided itself. So many people in such varied hastes to get to so many other places. Tourists, tour groups, kids, businessmen and women, cheap punks and shady ladies. One’s eyes couldn’t help pulling one’s soul into distraction and inattention. That’s where I had been myself.

And that’s all it had taken. He seemed to have sensed that sudden moment of disidentity, stepped close, jacket over his arm, looked away, turned away, got bumped back into his pigeon by another passerby (confederate? I now wondered. It didn’t seem so), and made the pluck. Smooth, instantaneous, summoning the poor soul back just as his wallet went away. The schmuck never knew.

Then he was gone. Six or eight steps into the crowd, moving at just the right speed, able to cut around the newsstand, putting its black bulk between the victim and his criminal, then around and down into the Underground.

I had expected to see him pass the stash off to a partner. But he hadn’t needed a pair of stooges to perform a distraction, either.

Even so, I stood, almost as stalled as the pigeon, expecting that pass; but he never did. And he was gone.

My feet were wiser than my brain. I was moving after him without even realizing it. The victim seemed innocently unaware of his loss, and my man was almost as safe as he could be. A perfect crime.

Except for me.

As it was, I was fifteen or twenty seconds behind him onto the stairs, and he was already gone as I started down. Seized with sudden concern, I hurried, taking steps two at a time and brushing by people who froze, offended, not sure I wasn’t a pickpocket or something myself.

London_Underground_Entrance

But it paid off. I hit the big, crowded yellow-tiled oval just in time see him pass through the turnstiles. My TravelCard was in my hand instantly, as if I’d been planning such an action all along, and shoving past, nearly through, a half a dozen commuters, I darted through a nearer turnstile (almost trying a red-X but stepping to my right just in time to cut off a pair of young lovers wrapped around each other and not finding their cards easily enough) as he unhurriedly sauntered to the escalator.

I told myself I just wanted to see where he went, what he did next. I knew I looked rushed, so I played the part—harried tourist. I couldn’t let him notice me among the multitudes. So I took the escalator, too, hanging to the left as he stood calmly to the right, poised nervelessly on his moving step, and nearly ran down my side right past him and arrived far ahead of him at the bottom.

A good ploy, but now I had a problem. I couldn’t predict which way he would go from here.

But I forged on away and around to the next escalator down. He didn’t really have much choice yet, I believed.

My hurried character couldn’t permit to slow down, so I raced on down that next descent, too, not looking back because that would be all wrong, but getting farther ahead. At the bottom came the crisis. The tunnels fed two ways. Would he be off north or south? Would he actually take a train at all? Was he even still behind me?

I couldn’t guess. I stopped in front of the big pair of Tube maps for the lines, behind two other guys, probably tourists like myself, and pretended to figure out what way I wanted to go.

The two guys were arguing. In Italian. They seemed hideously loud to me (and oblivious of my—or anyone else’s—presence). Were there people behind us? Was he still there? Was he turning right or left behind me right now?

A dramatic agony of suspense swept through me. Truthfully, I just didn’t know. He could have turned right around and gone back up. On the first escalator.

What was I doing here? What did I imagine I was accomplishing? I was a silly tourist, not a cop, not a professional detective or something.

What should I do?

So I turned around as though I’d made up my mind—the exact opposite was the truth—and among the people turning rapidly in both directions, I was suddenly looking him directly in the eye. Face to face. Brown eyes under heavy brows. Noticeably almond-shaped eyes. Medium skin tone. Smooth flesh. Beaky nose.

He looked straight back at me.

Did he know?

Was he onto me as I was to him?

I couldn’t panic. I held steady, looked back at him a few seconds (forever, it seemed), and then I pulled out my tube map from my shirt pocket and opened it to examine.

“Piccadilly?” I murmured hopefully to myself.

He simply moved off to my left, and nodding to myself, as though the map had reassured me, I followed.

“Yes, the connection is at Embankment,” I scolded myself artificially, wondering:

Did he have a weapon? A knife. He could use a knife in his “business.” Nice and quick. Quiet. —So stay very public, right?

london_underground

We proceeded through the tunnels to the Tube stop itself, interestingly just as a train arrived. Had he planned it this way? Could someone be that good? I didn’t know. He stepped straight through the crowd into the car directly ahead, just as the doors opened.

I did too, barely wedging myself into the doorway as the entrance slid closed and the vehicle lurched into motion, headed downtown, into the City.

Craning my neck a bit, I could see his shirt among the mass aboard. I thought it was his shirt. His arm. I couldn’t see the head that went with the shirt. I knew he’d stepped aboard. I’d even given him a couple of seconds, possibly ten, to step back out again. I’d seen that kind of stunt on TV. Funny how the movies shape our lives, skewing perceptions, creating anticipations.

Then I’d gotten in. He had to be aboard.

But he’d wisely dressed so anonymously. Not like the dork there, blocking my view. A bright blue shirt, some kind of goofy fishing vest with apparently every one of its dozen, more, pockets stuffed with things. Tourist. I could seek the DK guide peeking out of his side pocket, and he held a Harrods-green plastic bag behind him. I wondered where his wallet was. And a black cap that looked too large on his head. Glasses. He turned and looked toward me.

“Lovely day for a Guinness” in bright new embroidery. Toucan.

He saw me staring at him. His hand went to his breast. The wallet? His left arm touched tightly, protectively, against that side. I shifted my attention, hoping to relieve the dork’s anxiety. And there he was, my pickpocket.

Yes. It was him. Now that the fishing tourist had moved a bit, I could see him as we all rocked and swayed, lurching a bit against each other on tight turns.

He wasn’t that far form me. Much closer to my end of the car than the front. When we came to his stop, he’d have to pass by me. Wouldn’t he?

Where was he going? Where do petty crooks/pickpockets go for an evening? Home? The East End?

My TravelCard was only good through Zone 3.

All I could do was… hope.

Suddenly I felt crazy. What was I doing chasing some criminal across London? What did I think I was doing?

What if he caught on to me?

And, whoosh, shudder, sudden lights: we reached Charing Cross, abruptly stopping, and I fell back against someone behind me. The doors opened, and people all around moved.

People wanted out, past me. He seemed content to stay. It didn’t appear he’d paid any attention to me. But I didn’t want to draw any notice now; rather than block the way, I stepped out on the platform—empty at this time of day of new arrivals—and let the half dozen exiters mill past. Then I stepped back on board.

He stood right next to me.

I almost reached for my wallet, to know that it was safe.

But I controlled myself, attempting to glance idly at him, so close. He was gazing directly into my face. Brown eyes looked wet, soft, almost doglike—but his gaze did not falter. He didn’t even blink. Then he smiled briefly and stepped away, turning toward the windows on the other side. The train lurched into motion and I grabbed for the pole, still trapped mostly in the entry/exit area.

Now what? Next stop was… My eyes went up to the Tube map along the upper side, above the windows, among the ads, searching for the brown line, as the train staggered through some rough stuff in the darkness of the hole we transversed below London, shaking us all around and blinking the lights as contacts briefly shifted off the track. I focused as I struggled to maintain some kind of balance—Piccadilly, Charing Cross, Embankment.

Would he get off in the City? I braced to exit if he moved at this next stop.

With a few more awkward passages, we suddenly shot into light, slowing, and the announcement said something I couldnʹt quite hear or understand. We stopped abruptly. But this was Embankment.

The doors whizzed open and people moved around us. Once again, I quickly stepped out to let the movement occur, off and on, while my eyes kept searching those near me and up the car at the next door as well. Difficult to see, but as the transfer of people in and out eased, I didnʹt think heʹd gotten off, so once more I stepped back within, almost in my same spot but able to ease out of the exit area into the aisle more or less, and grabbed onto the pole for support as the doors whished shut and the train leapt out of the station, pulling us all toward the rear for a moment.

I could see him up the way, about halfway down the car now, comfortably at ease, his coat still over the one arm, his other arm upraised to cling to the overhead rail.

Rumbling straight for and then under the river. Right? Next stop, what?

And we grumbled and lurched through blackness, another rough trip this section, with people bumping into each other some. I couldn’t help but glance to see where his hands were. In his pockets. Not working trapped in here (black outside but cozily overlit within). Or else just too quick for me to see.

He looked my way, caught me staring. I looked away fast. Foolish. Made myself look guilty, like I was watching him or something. (Of course, I was.)

Were we under the river by now? If so, no difference whatsoever. Blackness outside. Rattling and bouncing in the bright interior for us. People pretending to read the ads while probably puzzling about each other.

I looked again at the Tube map—next stop, brown line past the river: Waterloo.

We shuddered and lurched and twisted through darkness a considerable while this time. One thing I was never sure of on the Underground was how fast we traveled on any particular stretch. This trip seemed fast or at least tortuous. Then again, turn and shake, thrust against each other and lights—and now we’d reached Waterloo. The line ended at the next stop, Elephant and Castle, so he’d have to exit there, at least. And now?

The doors whooshed open, and people pressed out past me—him too.

So I waited then followed the crowd. We all surged and tumbled toward the stairs, him too, I assumed. But I had lost sight of him in the crowd. Climbing, I tried to get forward—but that behavior was impolite, and I made no progress. Scanning backs and heads, I couldn’t make any of them seem like him, although my imagination tried.

Then debouching into the great hall of Waterloo Station, our crowd was swallowed up in the hundreds (thousands?) already there. And he was gone. I stopped rudely and turned completely around, searching, but I had lost him.

I didn’t give up immediately. I tried hanging about, staring, wandering to one end and then the other—looking out exits, into shops. But he’d eluded me as efficiently as if he knew I were pursuing him.

After twenty minutes, I went back down and returned the way I’d come.

II

Two days later I went to Kew for the Gardens, leaving quite early and running my TravelPass nearly to its limit for that stop, Kew lying on the extreme edge of Zone 3. I took the Piccadilly Line to South Kensington, changing then for the District out to Kew.

The only difficulty occurred upon arrival—figuring out that I had to go up and over the track to the Gardens, and I arrived twenty minutes before they opened. However, waiting around outside Victoria Gate—as couples and singles much older than I gathered and waited, walking around a bit like myself on the large lobbylike sidewalk area outside the entrance—just seemed idle and pleasant to me that sunny, clear-blue morning. And I felt welcomely released from the Underground.

After the wait, and an overly hurried and jostling queue at opening time, it was a wonderful day, restful, lovely, quiet (except for the frequent jets, circling, I assumed, for Heathrow). Probably the loveliest day of my trip—glassclear skies of limitless depths, cloudless. Even after what seemed like a minor crowd at the gate, few other visitors. Those I met were getting old or had gotten there, diffidently and politely friendly in that old-fashioned WWII British way. No one intruded on others.

I came up to Queen Charlotte’s little cottage, away to the southeast edge, not long after noon, having dawdled through the Rhododendron Dell and stared across the Thames. The long grass around the cottage shifting in the breeze, bedazzled with sunshine, and I stood, mesmerized, for an awfully long time. I know two old ladies came chatting up by the cottage itself, from the other direction, saw me, and leisurely, unostentatiously, made themselves scarce. Later, elsewhere, I did the same for a pair of old geezers debating the floral quality beyond the Japanese tower.

The entire experience drew me back fifteen years. Perfectly. Only that other time I wasn’t alone.

Flowers and plants and huge, ageless trees filled my senses and erased thoughts for scores of minutes in a stroke.

I felt pulled out of time—blissfully sliding out of contemporary experience. At some moments, as at the Queen’s cottage—gazing at that sunstruck, softly moving meadow hedged by shadow, forest—I could almost feel Marcia Kay beside me. Suspended between the present and the beauty of that moment she might almost net her fingers among mine.

But, breathing then, no, it could not be. That was the past, a decade gone. And so was she for these endless, long months, nearly four years. But I shoved that issue away and went on through loveliness, nostalgic, with destiny already behind me, alone.

Finally, well into the afternoon, I decided that I’d had enough bucolic bliss and gradually found my way out and back toward the Tube stop. I remembered noticing a rustic pub on the way in, and by the afternoon light it looked even more pleasant and inviting, so I walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness, which I took outside to sit on the patio in front and enjoy. I actually enjoyed two before getting up to go.

©2009 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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