The two nuns chatted in Dutch, puffing and tapping ashes into trays built into the seat arms. The younger favored exhaling through her nostrils, the older from her mouth, slightly tilting her head upward toward her left shoulder. Henry sat facing the nuns, glancing out the window at orderly fields, windmills, and country lanes that seemed to whiz by. The man sitting next to him held a newspaper at eye level, blocking his view of the holy sisters. Occasionally he chuckled or sighed. It seemed to Henry that the man was unaware of his presence or that of the two nuns, who seemed equally ignorant of either the man or Henry’s company.
The nuns, Henry imagined, were likely breaking an edict from their stern mother superior with their voracious smoking. Perhaps they were on holiday, traveling from Amsterdam to the Riviera. He imagined them exchanging their habits for jeans and t-shirts while touring the Roman ruins in Antibes. They would probably drink wine at dinner and smoke after dessert before attending evening mass. Taking respite from their purifying spiritual life, an act for which Henry was firmly sympathetic, must be the highlight of their year.
Henry pegged the man as a graduate student. He was of the right age and dressed in a rumpled casualness that must have been carefully planned the night before. The coordinated chocolate, gingerbread, and tan colors of his wardrobe and the elbow patches on his worn corduroy jacket were giveaways impossible to ignore. His forehead wrinkled from time to time as he read, certainly indicating concentration on the more important content. He could be on his way to a scholarly conference in his field, perhaps history of the Iberian Peninsula. Because he wore his shoulder length black hair pulled back in a ponytail and wore a clumsily trimmed beard, Henry deduced that he was somewhat of a rabble-rouser among his more conservative colleagues. The color of his hair, eyes, and complexion suggested he was an immigrant, or more likely the son of immigrants Henry concluded. When Henry noticed his unusually long fingers, he considered the possibility that the man was a concert pianist rather than a student, but thought probably not.
An hour out of the station the conductor slid the compartment door open and uttered a short phrase. The older nun reached into the small satchel hanging at her side and efficiently presented two tickets. The man, without glancing up from the newspaper, pulled a ticket from the inside pocket of his jacket and did likewise. Henry, caught off guard, fumbled before he pulled an envelope from his briefcase and sorted through to find the ticket that read, “Amsterdam tot Maastricht, Vertrekken: 07:30 – Aankomst: 09:55”. The conductor took the ticket from his hand with what Henry recognized as a disingenuous smile before closing the sliding door and moving on to the next compartment.
The nuns resumed their smoking and light-hearted banter, and the man continued reading. Henry turned again to stare out the window, confident he was on the right train but annoyed that his fellow travelers may now have a psychological advantage. Had they pegged him as a person unaccustomed to their ways and unable to speak their language? How ironic, Henry thought, that it was he who held a distinct advantage in their current circumstance. He observed and analyzed with the detachment of an anthropologist. Perhaps a sociologist would be more apt, he decided. They, on the other hand, were oblivious to his role or theirs in the current circumstance – a scientist studying his subjects.
In unison, the nuns stubbed out their cigarettes, sat straight, and smiled at Henry, showing surprisingly white teeth. Under their unflinching gaze, he felt pressured to say something. He was told before the trip that most Dutch speak English at least well enough to carry on a brief conversation about typical day-to-day topics, so he had not bothered to learn even the most common Dutch phrases. To avoid the embarrassment of revealing this fact in such close quarters among three strangers, he said nothing, but the younger nun forced his hand by speaking to him in her native tongue.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch. I’m an American,” he said. He could feel his cheeks warming.
The nun raised a hand over the rosary hanging from her neck and replied in perfect English, “American. Are you traveling all the way to Maastricht?”
The man lowered the newspaper to his lap and turned toward Henry expressionless while the nuns smiled and held their gazes at him.
Henry answered with more detail than was required or intended. “Yes, I’ll be there for a couple of days, and then to Eindhoven for two more days, and then back to Amsterdam for four more. This is my first trip to Europe.” He almost continued with, “I’m pleased that everything seems so safe”, and congratulated himself for not doing so, impressed with his own poise.
The man resumed reading the newspaper, and the older nun said, “First time! Welcome.”
“Vogende halte, Weerd station. Vijf minuten,” announced the recorded voice through the speaker. The nuns stood to leave without saying anything else. “Not going to the Riviera after all,” Henry thought. He wondered if they were returning from holiday in London or perhaps Ireland. Who knew?
Henry moved to the seat the younger nun had occupied next to the window, and when he did, the man moved to the seat directly opposite him, leaving the folded newspaper behind. Henry smiled at the man and nodded. The man did the same, and then turned to look out the window. They rode a few minutes in silence before the man spoke for the first time. Still looking out at the countryside, he said in English, “I’m curious. Is your trip one of pleasure or work?”
“I’m here for work, but I’ll do some sightseeing in the evenings,” Henry replied.
“I see,” said the man, turning to Henry. “What is the nature of your work?”
“I’m here as a consultant, hired by the national mental health authority,” Henry replied.
“And what will you consult about exactly,” asked the man, leaning forward.
“Basically, how to be more effective at preparing the mentally ill to live full lives in the community,” Henry said.
“Interesting,” said the man. “Is this a difficult task for our mental health professionals in Holland?”
“It’s not easy for anyone, even in the States,” Henry replied.
Henry was inpatient with what he knew would be a fruitless attempt to explain the importance of his work to the man, so before he could ask another question, Henry inquired, “What is your job?”
Without hesitation, the man confidently replied in two short sentences. “I am God. My job is world peace.”
Henry searched the man’s face for a hint of a smile. Finding none, the only response he could manage was, “World peace.”
At that moment the nuns opened the sliding doors and quickly took seats in the compartment again. The older sat next to Henry, and the younger next to the man. In a loud whisper, she spoke in English, “There is a problem. We saw men with guns.”
“They are not police. They are asking for Americans,” said the older nun, breathlessly. She described seeing four men pointing rifles at passengers and yelling as she and her sister approached the most forward car. The men were speaking Dutch, but with detectable accents.
Before anyone in the compartment said another word, they heard two gunshots from the direction the nuns had returned, and within seconds a man and a woman with rifles approached their compartment from the opposite direction. The woman pointed her rifle at them while the man slid the door open violently. He stepped aside, and the woman joined him in the doorway. The man sitting across from Henry stood and calmly walked toward the compartment door. The couple parted to make room and the three of them spoke quietly in a language Henry could not recognize. After a few seconds Henry’s fellow traveler pulled a pistol from inside his coat pocket and motioned for the other two to move on. They nodded and walked to the next compartment. Henry heard the woman yelling what sounded like a question twice, and then a short burst of gunfire after a moment’s silence.
Both nuns and Henry stared at the man in the door. The nuns crossed themselves, and Henry prayed silently and sincerely for the first time in his life.
The man spoke in a casual tone. “You must not leave this compartment until I have left the train with my brigade. You must not speak. You must not touch each other. You must not stand. You must not raise the window. You must pray to a merciful God. You will be safe if you do exactly as I say.”
Rick Forbess lives in Maine with his wife of 44 years. His long career in the mental health field is winding down, and four years ago he added writing short fiction to his decades long passion for reading short fiction. He began submitting stories in July 2017. This is his second story to be published in Parentheses and he has had another accepted in Inscape Literary Journal.