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May 27, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 14

By Robert Earle

Ivan has traveled three continents to try to bring down the Czar's rule in Russia. But at the end of his journey he found Christina, and became the father of her unborn child. The Czar will wait a little longer, for Ivan has asked his brother Alexei to perform a wedding ceremony, to make things right for this new and unexpected life.


Outside it was a bright clear day. The farm was drenched in glistening dewy sunlight, wrapped in a late morning spell of lassitude as yielding to the Russians and the American woman coming out of the house as to the Russian and American man coming down the road. The wedding party was wary of nothing. The pair of men approaching them were wary of everything, every movement, sound, and intimation of one instant leading to an avalanche of instants, a huge weight as heavy as the mountain in the near distance.

They came to a bald-barked cypress tree.

"How do we do this?" Dickerson asked.

Smedlov said obviously they would have to wait. "The other man -- not the one in the skiff, the tall one. Who is he?"

"I have no idea, but that young woman, she'll be McGrath's wife." Dickerson thought she was awfully pretty. That honey gold hair. The arms. He couldn't imagine her married to McGrath. He'd like to be married to someone like her himself. She reminded him of his youngest sister before his father ruined her hands and face with the tanning poisons and her bottom and back with the whippings.

They watched as the fellow they hadn't seen before, the tallest of the men present, began talking and everyone else, even the boy and little girl, grew still. Then the tall thin fellow reached out. He took Karamazov and McGrath's wife's hands and went on talking.

"I think he's marrying them," Dickerson said.

Smedlov said something in Russian.

Dickerson glanced at him, not needing or wanting to know what it was he had said. The big man was settling into his intent. Dickerson could see that. Didn't care if the two were being married. Stood there getting ready by growing weirdly still. Great big lantern-jawed beast about to do what he would do with his bare hands, fast as a lightning strike, but when?

Dickerson said, "At some point, they'll walk off alone." But that could take hours, or ... Of course he didn't know. They had to, though. He thought ahead, trying to imagine it all, intimidated by Smedlov's preternatural motionlessness. He was where he needed to be and good with it, while Dickerson wasn't. All Dickerson had were a jumble of words, things he was telling himself: Smedlov would snap Karamazov's neck. Dickerson would shoot Smedlov in the back of the head. With the remaining bullet, he'd force Mrs. McGrath to go with him. Fend off these people and take her as proof the job was done. If she struggled? If she fainted? If one of the others charged him -- that wild-haired wench with the baby at her tit? He'd shoot and run. He felt like running now. Inside he was running.

"We could go back and tell McGrath where he is. Before you got involved, he offered me five thousand for just doing that. Wouldn't that be enough? You and me split it?"

It was not as though Smedlov didn't hear him; it was though he really couldn't hear anything anymore, was only those enlarged eyes and big jaw and raptorial hands.

"Smedlov, listen ... hey ... I said ... " But then Dickerson shut up because Karamazov had just turned to face Mrs. McGrath and kissed her while the bald guy with the limp picked up the little girl and the consul -- the one called Valery -- stepped forward and shook the tall man's hand and then kissed the bride while Karamazov stood there weeping (wasn't so tough a thief as he'd thought, apparently) and Mrs. McGrath continued to hold his hand and raise it to her lips even as the consul's lips touched her cheeks. Everything happening in the oneness of things. The heavy woman with all the hair rocking her baby. The tall fellow with the long hair grabbing the young boy and pulling him close up against his side.

"We could be here for hours," Dickerson said.

Smedlov kept looking, a great big void, an emptiness.

Dickerson tried again, within himself, to take stock. They weren't going to stay there forever -- Mr. Ivan, Mr. Valery the consul, and Mrs. McGrath -- were they? Of course not. Look at how they were dressed. Didn't belong out here in these sweet manure sticks. Certainly not the consul, the consul would have to go back, and the skiff fellow, he'd take him. So then where did the two bullets go? All he had was a card table gun, worthless at more than five feet. Grab Karamazov, use the gun to keep the others at bay, drag him off ... ?

"Look!" Smedlov whispered.

Ivan and Christina were walking along the pasture fence, followed only by the little girl. The others were going into the house. Ivan had listened to Alexei's injunctions, bindings, and blessings in disbelief. He'd given up the last fictive shred of who he was and felt that sense of bursting inside, that pounding in his head he'd known and hated before when the brain fever inflamed him and he burned his father's house. What did it mean? It meant he lied and did not know how not to lie and the way things wavered around him, the way they seemed on the verge of blowing away in fragments, told him he was guilty and could now blow away, too, the mere air hot enough to render him ash. But "I am not the man you should have married" were words he could not say.

Christina walked along by his side looking at him and waiting and worrying. How far would they go? Would they walk forever? She glanced over her shoulder at the little girl and watched how she flitted here and there snatching up flowers, making a bouquet. There were red and blue and yellow ones, pink ones, little white ones, purple ones that climbed the fence and had closed now, morning glories, but she picked these, too.

Smedlov and Dickerson came out from behind the cypress tree and skidded down from the roadbed to the grassy skirt of the farmyard. For the moment, no one noticed. Karamazov, the girl, and Mrs. McGrath had their backs turned. The others, boy, man, heavy woman, consul and limper were entering the one-story farmhouse.

"I will pull Karamazov one way, you take Mrs. McGrath the other," Smedlov said.

"What about the girl?" Dickerson asked.

"We don't worry about her. She won't even understand he's dead. But we take Mrs. McGrath. That keeps the others away from us." Smedlov bent over and picked up an oval white stone half the size of a loaf of bread with one of his large hands and passed it to Dickerson. "Hit her if you have to."

"The girl?"

"No, Mrs. McGrath."

This ugly walking stillness of a man had everything fixed and planned in an instant. From one second to the next, one stride to the next, the act would occur, and then, Dickerson thought, there would be the shock, the struggle ... how could he hit her? He couldn't. He'd shoot Smedlov and get her attention that way. She'd fear the gun and come along, and he'd get all the money. That's how it would be, and the rest would be too afraid to give chase.

Ivan turned to look at the bouquet Deborah was collecting for them and saw Smedlov lunging at him, arm flung out and arcing murderously through the air toward his neck. Then he heard a shot. Then he felt another shot, enormous in his skull. Then he could not move because of the huge Russian on top of him and he couldn't hear anything. He couldn't speak. He couldn't swallow. He couldn't push free and then saw Dmitri hurtling toward him and Alexei hurtling toward him and then all three of them becoming one with the dead Russian on his chest and Christina being dragged into the last nowhere he ever saw by a man who looked like himself.


She was pregnant. Any man could see that. And there she sat, her skin color high with hatred. Any man could see that, too. If McGrath weren't so old, he would smack her face.

"I told you I didn't want her," he hissed at Dickerson.

"I needed someone to help me get away safe and show you the job was done," Dickerson said. "She behaved herself all the way until we got here."

From the moment he pulled her away from those guys all twisted around Smedlov, the dead one beneath, the other two piled on top, pulling Smedlov off him, she'd been stone faced and pale, right up to walking down Montgomery Street and seeing the fancy hotel and realizing who was inside. She pulled her arm away from his hand. He gripped her harder and pushed his little derringer, which had no bullets left in it, against her ribs. "Like I told you, if you die, your baby dies, too." He could feel her stiffen and then sink. Pulled her back up. Walked her into the front door and told the clerk at the desk to send for McGrath to come down to the palm court. Then they sat down on a purple love seat patterned with dark green magnolia leaves, each of them probably thinking the same thoughts, seeing the same things in their minds: the three brothers entangled with Smedlov, the Russian consul Mr. Valery frozen statue-still in the farmyard, the little boy and girl shrieking, and the newborn in his wild-haired mother's arms ... all that tumult encased in the otherwise crypt-like countryside, no one else in the world seeing what was going on.

McGrath said, "I ought to whip your ass is what I ought to do, you lying whore. Your mother told me you would behave. Yes, you did -- just like always."

A waiter in a blue jacket with brass buttons asked if they'd like something to drink. Dickerson knew he shouldn't, but he was parched. He asked for whiskey and branch water, and just branch water for the lady. "What about you?" he asked McGrath.

McGrath tossed the back of his hand into the air to tell the waiter to get lost. "What am I supposed to do with her?" he asked.

"That's up to you. She's your wife. I'm here to be paid. The big Russian didn't make it. I'll take his share."

"He's dead, your Mr. Ivan's dead?" McGrath asked Christina.

She lowered her face.

"That baby's father?" he taunted, gesturing at her belly. "Dead?"

"Yes, he's dead," Dickerson cut him off. She was crying. He'd been asking himself all along what would happen to her. What did people do? One thing over, another begins. "Now what I'd like is what you owe me."

McGrath said, "I'll give you your share and half of his. And if he ever shows up, I'll give him the other half."

"He's not ever going to show up."

"We'll see. And you take her and do what you want with her. She's not staying here, I guarantee you that."

"Have it your way."

McGrath got up and walked stiff-legged across the Palm Court to the front desk. From there he was led out of sight to the safe deposit room. The waiter brought the drinks. Dickerson paid. The two of them sat side by side on the little purple floral love seat. The harp player began playing. People who weren't mussed up and streaked with sweat and tears like them gave the love seat a wide berth. McGrath came back, yellowed with anger and age. How on earth had a man like him ever thought he'd get away with a woman like this? Dickerson wondered, looking sideways at Christina, who must be thinking something, had to be thinking something. What would she do?

She looked at the envelope in McGrath's hand and watched him open it up and show Dickerson the contents, which he riffled through, counting each bill as his thumb pressed it into view: thirty five-hundred dollar bills. When Dickerson nodded, satisfied, he reached over to take the envelope. McGrath pulled it away from him.

"No, first I'm telling you something: I never see her or you again, and if I ever see this Mr. Ivan, if I ever find you two are in cahoots with him, and he's still around, I won't pay anyone to find and kill you, I'll do it myself. You take this money, you're putting yourself on the line. Got it?"

She listened to Dickerson say, "Got it," and watched him take the envelope. Then she looked at McGrath looking at her, hating her back.

"What did you think running off with some troublemaking Russian would get you, you fool? No answer? No, I didn't think so. Now what will happen to that baby? Who's going to take care of it? You going back to the Lead Belt? Let me tell you something," he leaned toward her, as if confiding something he didn't want overheard, "it would be too good for you. There must be some rat hole in this city where you'd fit in better and you can keep selling yourself until no one's buying. That's what God put you here for -- born a whore, die a whore. All you are -- a whore."

McGrath got up and walked away. Dickerson wanted another drink. He was exhausted. Had never been this tired. Images of what happened on Strawberry Point were embedded in his mind like shards of mirror. He could see himself shooting Smedlov, then shooting Ivan. The gun snapped, that's all. No big boom, just a snap, but he got it tight on the both of them. Then he could see the golden brown mountain in the distance, Mrs. McGrath's wild look, the little girl screaming, the other two men running, and him pulling her away, letting them go after Ivan and Smedlov, while the consul pushed the woman with the baby into the house and the ten-year-old boy ... what happened to him? Dickerson had no idea. He was moving fast, getting out of there, and there were blank stretches that mirrored nothing ... rushing back to the skiff, crossing the bay, hiring a hansom cab to the hotel ... and now sitting there beside her, her complexion lashed with emotion and confusion.

"What is your name?" she asked him.

"Alvin," he lied.

"Alvin what?"

"Alvin Knolley," he lied some more.

"Who was the other man with you?"

"He was a Russian agent. They didn't like what your Ivan was writing."

"And they wanted to kill him?"

"No, that was McGrath's idea. The Russian was here to shut him up and just bought in."

Should she call for the police? Where would that lead? Was Ivan really dead? Could she get free and go back to him? She stared at Alvin Knolley, who looked like Ivan in some ways, and saw the certainty in his face that yes, Ivan was dead and all that was supposed to have happened had happened.

" ... or you can come with me," Dickerson-now-called-Knolley was saying, suddenly possessed by the idea that if his sisters met her, they'd like her. It just came to him. How he could go back to Ohio and never do anything else for money again. He had enough. Ohio was cheap. He could live there forever, and you had those old forest and topsoil smells, and the long snowy winters with ice glinting on the streams and lakes. Maybe Russia was like that, too. Who knew?

"No," she said. He had killed Ivan and had threatened to kill her. Now he sat there soliciting her. Her shock was thawing; he horrified her.

"No, what?" he asked, confused. "Stay here or come with me? Which are you saying you'll do? I'm giving you a choice. None of these bad things ever have to happen again."

When she didn't answer, he began to open the envelope. She touched the back of his hand to stop him.

"Well, then, okay. Have it your way but take this." He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the double-headed gold eagle brooch with its blazing red ruby eyes. "It's got something to do with the czar of Russia. You should have it."

She accepted the brooch almost without looking at it and declined his suggestion that she pin it on. Simply clutched it in her hand.

"Which of us leaves first?" she asked.

"Where are you going? Looking for the consul or back across the water to ... ?" He stopped in mid-question because he could see she wasn't about to say or didn't know. "Okay, you first," he said flatly. All this was over now, nothing more to be said. "I'm going to have another drink."

She got up and he watched her walk out through the tables and sofas and chairs and giant potted palms. She looked like what McGrath had called her, actually. Didn't have a hat or parasol or carry bag. Just that long dress, her mussed mound of honey-gold hair and the double-headed eagle in her fist. But no one could see that, much less imagine why it was there, so none of the lackeys up front bestirred themselves to help her push through the heavy bronze door out onto the street.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-04-22
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