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August 08, 2022

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 6

By Robert Earle

While Ivan and Valery cross the country on their way to San Francisco, Christina Terry McGrath runs away from her husband, getting back on board the train. That she has pursued Ivan secretly at night does not necessarily mean that she won't switch her attention to Valery -- he's rich, and she is now alone ... and Ivan has a mission: to make Russia look bad in the eyes of the world.

Part II

I

They sat in the palm court of the Palace Hotel on Montgomery Street. The old man wanted Dickerson to find a Russian named Mr. Ivan and kill him. He might also like Dickerson to kill Mr. Ivan's pal, the Russian consul in San Francisco, a fellow named Mr. Valery, but not until the consul had led him to this Ivan and this Ivan was dead.

Dickerson took in the old man's thin yellow hair, his thick yellow fingernails, his yellow brown teeth, and the sweet scent of bourbon on his breath. He was an expensively dressed, freshly barbered lead miner named Thomas McGrath, originally from County Clare, but long, long ago. He was an owner now, rich, egoistic, convinced of his rights and powers. Married a whore, had he? Then let the whore's new fool pay blood for her. Dickerson looked out into the leafy atrium of perhaps the largest hotel in America, glad McGrath spoke in a hoarse natural whisper. He wouldn't want this overheard.

Apparently Mr. Ivan had absconded with McGrath's young wife in Denver. She had gotten off the train and then gotten back on just before it departed. McGrath spent the next six months establishing new mining operations in Leadville, Colorado.

"Now that's up and running, and I'm coming after this fellow."

Dickerson asked, "Do you want your wife back?"

"No, I do not."

"Are you certain she went off with Mr. Ivan and not this Mr. Valery, his pal?"

"I don't hold Valery innocent, but first we'll see how it goes with Ivan, like I say."

"What made you fix on me?"

McGrath lifted a heavy arm and pointed across the atrium. "I asked the bartender who is known to be successful in locating people around here."

"Locating people isn't killing them, sir."

"No, but it's five thousand dollars if you find him, ten if you kill him. Otherwise I'll pay someone else that extra five."

Dickerson normally made a thousand or two in a year and didn't expect more in 1904 so he didn't frequent the Palace Hotel and had no idea how the bartender knew his name. Hunting down fugitive women in and out of San Francisco's nooks and crannies? Yes, he'd done that. Chased two-timing husbands and other kinds of double-crossers and debtors, too. As a result his head was full of impressions, connections, notions, questions, simple facts and preposterous stories. The first man he had killed was his father, pushing him into a vat of cow brains. The other two he'd killed were in the line of work, but self-defense. Maybe you could call killing his father self-defense, too.

"Tell me about this guy Ivan."

"He looks like you except for the hair, which is grayer, and he's got a smaller mouth, small teeth. Low forehead, not too tall, well-dressed, speaks good English, makes you think he's educated but talks less than Mr. Valery, the consul. He doesn't seem to be liked by his own government, which isn't to the consul's credit. Supposed to be the assistant consul, I guess -- hard to imagine for a subversive."

Subversive? Dickerson knew nothing about Russia except its riffraff immigrants and fugitives here in the city. Didn't know what they were running from. The idea that if he went to the Russian consulate tomorrow and asked some questions, he might make five thousand dollars hardly seemed credible. "You really don't want the wife back?"

"Isn't that what I told you?"

"I just want to be certain, Mr. McGrath. What is her name?"

"Her maiden name is Christina Terry." McGrath heaved sideways on the sofa to expel some noxious flatulence. "I have aged ten years since this happened. First I'm saddled with more mine and less household help than I bargained for out in Colorado. Next, well, ... the indignity, the ... uh ... the ... "

He wasn't doing well, his eyes were glassy, and was utterly indifferent to the fashionable cavalcade that paraded before them, the ladies in their long frilly dresses, the men in evening wear or fine suits, the blue jacketed serving staff, the harp music in the background, the sharp contrast with what Dickerson knew milled and scuffled up and down San Francisco's streets.

"We live off foreigners here," he told McGrath. "The gold is all mined out, so all we do is import cheap workers and cheap goods on leaky ships. Don't be deceived by this fine hotel. San Francisco is a rough place. Some day it will be a ghost town. We might as well sell it back to the Russians."

McGrath was not interested in what Dickerson was saying. He was only interested in what he was saying himself: he wanted Mr. Ivan located and killed ... and if Christina Terry was still around, he'd like for her to see it done.

McGrath then gave Dickerson an envelope with $500 in it to get him going. "Come back when you have something to tell me."

II

The sight of her getting back on the train summoned something within him, a sensual greed, that he had thought was dead but now rose up and made him see his father's mocking face and Mitya's and recall their idiotic dancing about and perfectly matched folly. Quickly he got up and gave her the seat next to Valery and moved across the aisle from them. Valery raised his eyebrows as if asking him if he was sure. Yes, he was sure. He didn't want her. Impossible. He took out a handkerchief to pat the cold perspiration on his temples and only listened to what she was saying because he could not help it. She was chattering in a rush of desperate emotion. What had she just done? she asked. Lord, look down and pity her! she exclaimed. Her father's supply business collapsed when McGrath closed his mines in the Missouri Lead Belt and McGrath said, "I will take your daughter as my wife and we'll forget all the debts." Her father was too humiliated to say yes -- McGrath was a brutal man, brutality is what had made him so rich, he would have people who crossed him beaten, or their houses burned or animals shot -- but her mother wasn't. "'Christina,' she said, 'you've never had a beau with a future, and this man will be dead in a few years with you still young enough to live on the fortune he leaves you.'"

She agreed but declined a honeymoon in Chicago. She would accept him in Leadville when he put her in a proper house. In other words, take the vows but not yield to him, find some way out of the most upsetting situation in her life, even worse than watching her father fail in business and health in recent years. She told Valery and Ivan that McGrath enjoyed her tough bargaining. "He said he liked anyone who made relations into deals."

Then Ivan heard himself saying, abruptly and having nothing to do with "deals" or the surface of her story but everything to do with what he was feeling: "Mr. Valery Asimov, next to whom you sit, has done more to help me restore my life than almost anyone else in the world."

She looked at Ivan as if he were betraying her with this burst of gallantry. Valery looked at him the same way.

"I mean ... " Ivan lost his train of thought -- had there been any? What was he saying, that his life was, in fact, restored? " ... if you need funds ... "

"I have funds," she said in a way that revealed her toughness because she could only have funds if she had stolen them.

Valery interceded, or tried to, "Mrs. McGrath -- "

She cut him off. "I prefer to be known as Miss Terry, or Christina, just Christina."

"Yes, Christina, by all means." But Valery didn't know what to say either. He made a characteristic gesture, a bon vivant's backward flip of his left hand, dismissing all woes and travails, which was ineffective and senseless. None of these woes and travails was so easily dispatched. At last: "Would you like me to talk to the conductor and let him know you are still on board?"

"Thank you, sir. I guess I can do that myself."

The three of them sat there, the train beginning to strain against the slope of the mountains. It was awkward. Now she was near tears and first Valery and then even Ivan began doing what one does when confronted by a person whose life has been revealed as a shambles. They told her things that were as personal and embarrassing as her own story to make her feel better. Valery said he wouldn't have the job he was going to if it weren't for his well-known father; he hadn't earned it and shouldn't have it, as he supposed she already realized from what he had said the day before at breakfast. Ivan said his brother had been wrongly convicted of killing his father, and his other brother had accompanied him into Siberia where the punishment was beyond belief.

"So as I think we already have made clear, neither of us believe the czar should still control Russia," Valery said.

Ivan said, "The question is what to do without him."

"Be a democracy? Elect a president?" Christina asked.

Ivan said, "We would make a fine democracy."

"You wouldn't?"

"No, we wouldn't."

"Why not?"

"Because we know each other too well," Valery said. "Democracy is for strangers. Russia is a thousand years old."

Christina said she would have to think about that. She turned to Ivan. "Have you heard from your brothers?"

"Only a story Valery heard from his uncle."

"How did it go?"

"Somehow, they may have escaped."

"Where?"

"I couldn't say."

"Could they have come here?"

Ivan made a quiet, doubtful laughing sound.

Encouraged by the two men's sympathy, she became loquacious in the dining car over their soup, cutlets and pie. She said she had become a schoolteacher when she was fourteen because she was good at mathematics and music even if she wasn't so good on geography or history. But who else was going to teach the children in a place as awful as the Missouri Lead Belt? Ivan said the Missouri Lead Belt did not sound that different from Skotoprigonyevsk.

"You had mines while we in Skotoprigonyevsk had timber and some bog ore."

"At least you were living in a town," Christina said. "We were on farms and in camps and what we had instead of towns were general stores and bars. Lots of bars."

"Bars?" Ivan asked.

"Places where people drink licker," Christina said.

Licker; she wasn't as young in experience as in age. She'd said her mother criticized her beaus. No doubt there had been a few. Ivan looked from her young face to Valery's and saw Valery smiling at her. Valery liked the way she talked. And she liked being liked, didn't she, by a gentleman with excellent sideburns and a dove gray suit? She wasn't at all the person who had sat so quietly beside the old man all the way to Denver.

Suddenly caught up in a wave of confusion and misery, Ivan excused himself for a moment and then simply didn't come back to the dining car. He took his seat in the passenger compartment, certain that America wasn't the place for him and longing to be wherever he would be when all this was over, inevitably with Kristina Ivanovna, having done nothing. Certainly not what Lenin ordered him to do: Make the world despise Russia to the point where Russia simply disintegrated, the czar, his court, his army and navy, all of it. So that socialism could be established, followed by communism and then ... ?

We'll go to Scotland, he thought. We'll go to an island in the Mediterranean or the northern coast of Africa. We'll hear of what happens, all the wars, massacres, collapsing empires one after another, and it won't be good. Kristina Ivanovna would understand that he hadn't been born to act. He'd been born to see the end, know it was coming and be helpless to stop it.

When Christina and Valery realized they weren't welcome in the dining car any longer, they returned to their carriage and found that the sleeping berths with their black curtains had been made up. Ivan was already resting in his.

"Yes, I'm here," he called out when Valery asked.

"Well, then, goodnight," Valery said to him. "And goodnight to you, Christina."

They each disappeared into their own berths and the train rattled along and after a half hour Christina slipped into Ivan's berth where all the bats inside him had been circling and whirling in the darkness, waiting for her.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-02-18
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