They sat three abreast in coach. Jim leaned his chair back but couldn’t sleep. Alyson did. Earl stayed up.
“You retired from the Navy,” said Jim quietly to Earl. “Why?”
“I did what I wanted.”
“Where were you posted?”
“All over. In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, off the coast of Somalia.”
“You didn’t like the Navy?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I liked the Navy.”
“So what was it that you wanted?”
“I wanted to see how far I could go. I was a Chief Warrant Officer, and that was as far as I could go as an enlisted man.”
“You didn’t try to be an officer?”
“Then they’d take me out of the field. I didn’t want that.”
“What about her?” He thumbed at Alyson. “Did she get what she wanted?”
“What kind of medical discharge?”
“She busted up her knee.”
He looked down at her legs. “They look fine to me.”
“Because she ignores the pain it causes her.” He looked out at the car. “You can, if you want, ignore the pain that your body gives you, and still push on.”
“That’s living on adrenaline.”
“What do you think we do?”
“But you were so calm out there doing…”
Jim looked around.
“How many people do you think I’ve killed, Jim? How many people do you think she has? Do you really want to know that about us?” He grinned. “We were just getting to know each other on friendly terms.”
“I still don’t know you.”
“And that’s the way I like it. Because, Jim, come tomorrow after I pass you to the DOD, you’re nothing to me.”
Jim cast his eyes down, biting his lower lip.
“Nothing personal, Jim, but that’s how we are with escorts, you see. We can’t get close to the subject, then the subject will think that we’re friends. We’re not friends, Jim. We’re in this as a business deal.” Earl looked directly at Jim. “The sooner you realize that, the easier things get.”
“Business. Right. Is that how she treats it, too?”
“Believe me, Jim, that’s exactly how she treats it.”
Jim finally fell silent and picked up a magazine, flipping through it, reading every article. “Any way we can find something to read?”
“I don’t know what they have at the other car,” he said, “But we can check.”
“Even a New York Times. I don’t care what to read.”
Earl got up, and let Jim out into the aisle. He tapped Alyson on the shoulder. She instantly came awake, a hand at her hip where the pistol would have been in her pocket, but they left the guns with the rental.
“We’re going to the commissary.”
“Okay,” she said, and sat up straighter and started to move to get up.
“No, stay here. Get some rest. I’ve got him.”
She looked Jim over and Earl. “If you’re not back in fifteen, I’m coming to get you.”
“Ten, the commissary’s two cars down.”
Earl easily negotiated the slight swaying of the train, but Jim had to hold onto seats. They went through two cars to the snack car, which also had a small news stand. Jim picked up a New York Times and went to pay for it.
Two men came into the car, both of them men in black suits with sunglasses. Earl tensed, watching as the two men passed by Earl and approached Jim with single-mindedness. Jim looked up at their approach. “Yes?” he asked.
“Come with us,” one said.
“I’m with someone,” said Jim, as Earl approached from behind. Jim tried to get past the men, but they didn’t budge.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Earl said, as he also tried to get past them. One of them turned his head, and only his head, and looked Earl up and down, as if assessing a fly. Then he turned, pivoting his body, and Earl had barely enough time to put both arms up as if in boxing, when the man gave him a shove.
It was a shove that was stronger than any human should be allowed, as Earl went backwards into the snack area, knocking over a display of chips. The woman behind the counter shrieked, while the man behind the news stand did something with his hands under the counter.
Earl had heard stories of the Men in Black, that not only were they CIA agents, but they were trained in some strange and extraordinary ways. Some were supposedly telepaths, but all of them were martial artists.
And the martial artist of the group was in the other car.
Earl got up when he saw one of the men take a hold of Jim’s arm. Jim looked desperate and tried to pull away.
“We’re federal agents,” said the one who shoved Earl, as he started to the door.
Earl tackled him, throwing him into a booth. The second man did not release his hold from Jim and started to walk to the door.
The first man, meanwhile, snarled at Earl and tried to shove Earl off. Earl had put all his weight in his stomach, and tensed there, even while he punched the Man in Black in the face.
“Help!” cried Jim, as he was being dragged inexorably toward the door. The Man in Black grabbed Earl’s head with both hands, and attempted a head butt, but Earl jerked his head back, throwing himself off balance enough for the man to shove him off.
Earl stumbled, and saw that Jim was digging in his heels and trying to make it as difficult as possible for the other man to get him out. Then he didn’t see anything for a moment as the Man in Black punched him solidly in the temple.
Earl stumbled again, his hands behind him looking for something to grab onto, while the Man in Black advanced. He vaguely heard the car door open and could see two burly Amtrak agents come storming in - before he was hit again and fell again into the snack area, this time against the counter.
“We’re federal agents, taking this man into custody,” said the man holding Jim.
“Mind showing me your ID?”
“I do. This is a secret operation.”
Earl watched through hazy eyes as the Amtrak agent looked his way, then back to Jim. “I think we’d better sort this out.”
“There’s nothing to sort out,” said the man who had pummeled Earl, as he stood up, straightening his suit.
Said the other Amtrak agent, “Why don’t you let the guy go?”
The car door opened and in marched the cavalry. Alyson assessed the situation, and in her sweetest voice, said, “What’s going on with my husband?”
The Amtrak agents and the Men in Black stopped what they were doing and studied her. She smiled, and went up to Jim, putting herself between the Man holding him and Jim. “If you would let go of my husband, please?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” said the Amtrak agent, “but these men seem to say they’re federal agents…”
“Why that’s just silly,” said Alyson. “We’re coming from St. Louis and going to Washington DC. Here’s our ticket,” she put a hand in her pocket and started to dig out the ticket.
“No need, ma’am,” said the agent, and turned to the Man with Jim. “If you would be so kind as to let him go.”
The Man in Black reluctantly let Jim go. Alyson put her arm around Jim’s waist and leaned into him.
“Do you know that man?” The agent pointed to Earl.
Alyson nodded. “That’s my brother. Did you get into another scrape again.”
“Sorry,” Earl said, looking sufficiently chastised.
“Don’t let it happen again,” said the agent, and then turned to the two Men in Black. “We have some things to discuss.”
The two Men both started to leave. The agent put his hand on the Man in Black’s shoulder, “Eh eh. You two, come with us.”
“I don’t think you understand, sir,” one said. “We don’t answer to you.”
“I don’t care if you answer to God; you’re on my train, and you come with me.”
Both men started toward the door. Alyson pushed Jim back with her hip, hoping he’d get the hint and move back. The both of them started to move toward Earl. Alyson nodded to the rear door, the one that said, “Employees only”.
While the Men in Black argued, Earl, Alyson and Jim headed to the rear. They got there, and opened the door. They were in between cars again, and headed into the next car. No one was there.
“Now what?” asked Alyson.
“We get the hell off at the next stop,” said Earl. “I don’t want to deal with them if they talk their way out of that situation.”
“Where is the next stop?” asked Jim.
“I don’t know.”
Alyson looked at Earl. “You okay?”
Earl smiled, “Just my pride. That guy shoved me a good four feet. If those chips hadn’t stopped me, I would have probably gone through the side of the train.”
Asked Jim, “Who were those guys?”
“Men in Black.”
“I could tell that.”
Said Alyson, “Very secretive CIA agents.”
“Kind of like special ops for the CIA,” said Earl.
“Well, they’re coming this way.”
Earl looked around and then saw what he wanted. “Ah ha - Hold on” and he pulled a cord.
Seconds later the train screeched to a halt. Everyone moved backwards, with Jim stumbling. “Go, go--” and they went to the rear of the car.
They opened the door and came upon a separation between cars. They jumped down onto the gravel and ran across the three sets of tracks, into the woods. Alyson grabbed Jim and whipped him around, pulling him to the ground. “Lie down here.”
“I think I stepped in dog shit.”
The Men in Black came out and one of them touched his glasses. Alyson knew that it was going to read them as infrared. The two men jumped down from the train, guns drawn.
The Amtrak agents weren’t far behind, and they were yelling at them to get back on the train. Alyson knew they could see her, so she got to a crouching position.
The Men in Black headed into the woods, aiming right for them. The Amtrak agents said nothing else, got back onto the train. The train started moving again, leaving them with the two Men in Black, who seemed bound and determined to get at Jim.
Alyson waited until they were in range, and then jumped from the crouching position and tackled one. The gun went off, and she felt it scrape her arm. Jim got up and started to run. The Man in Black started to chase him - and then he got hit by a large stump of a tree, right across the back of the head. He fell like a rock, the gun flying from his hand, as Earl stood over him.
Meanwhile Alyson used all her strength and punched the other Man in Black in the nose with an open palm. The man staggered back, bleeding. She kicked at his groin, and the man doubled over in agony. As she came down from the kick, her bad knee buckled and she fell with a yelp.
The Man in Black lifted his head and grinned, and when he did, he got hit from behind by a large branch. Earl stood behind him, and slammed the branch into the man’s head again, knocking him down. He hit him again in the head, and the branch stuck.
Earl let go, breathing heavily. Alyson backed away from the spreading pool of blood coming from the man’s head.
“Did you get the other one?”
“Yes. Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine in a minute.” The pain spreading around her knee was excruciating, but she forced herself to stand up, hearing the grind of bone against bone as she did.
“Did you twist it?”
“I failed on me,” Alyson said. “Where’s Jim?”
Earl took out the glasses that he had claimed from the other man. “I’ll find him.” He pressed a button on the side, and it showed things in infrared. “He’s over near the fence.”
Alyson took a step and stumbled. Earl grabbed her and held her up. “Let me.”
“I got it.”
“Will you please?”
She sighed, and leaned on Earl as they walked to Jim. Earl switched the glasses to normal as he approached.
Jim was standing next to a part of the fence that had been cut out. He looked concernedly at Alyson. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” she panted, trying to will the agony away.
“You’ve been shot,” he looked at her other arm, which had the clothing torn from it and some clotted and dripped blood at the wound.
“A scratch,” she said. “If I was shot, I would have known it.”
“Armor piercing bullets,” said Earl, holding out a magazine. “Two guns, two magazines, no ID.”
“Figures,” said Alyson.
“Three hundred dollars in cash, though.”
“How much money do we have left?”
“About a thousand dollars.”
Alyson nodded, and finally the pain had dulled to a low roar. She stopped leaning against Earl. “Okay. Let’s go.”
They walked through some thick woods, with Jim guiding them. They found a hunter’s path and followed it to a sandy grove, where people probably parked trucks for hunting. They followed that out to a gravel road, and Jim guided them to a home. A huge dog bounded out from nowhere toward them, then a whole pack.
“Shit,” Earl said, before he was knocked over by the dog who went right at his throat. Earl got his arm up just in time. Alyson had her gun out and was going to shoot when someone yelled, “Ho!”
The dogs stopped, growling at the newcomers, as a man came out of a barn, wearing only jeans and work boots. He was a heavy set man, with short black hair. He whistled, and the dogs came back. The man ducked into the barn and came out with a shotgun. Alyson put her gun away.
Earl held his arm - the dog had gone for fear, not for killing ,because his skin had not been pierced by the fangs of the dog. They stood and waited for the farmer to come up to them. They all knew they smelled ripe, and Jim had lost all his baggage on the train.
Earl spoke for them. “We’re lost. Where are we?”
“Harmon Creek, West Virginia.”
Jim sighed. “Dammit. We’re not even in Virginia.”
The man put up his gun. “Where you headed?”
“Washington DC. We got put out of the train.”
“Wha’d you do?”
“Start a fight,” said Alyson. “With federal agents.”
“Oh, why din’t you say so? C’mon in.”
Alyson limped forward and Earl tried not to help her. Jim did, though, and she leaned on Jim. “You okay, little miss?”
“I’ll be fine. Twisted my knee.”
“Ol’ lady Gissop’s got some balm for that. You c’n come and get a hot bath and we’ll wash your clothes for you.”
“We really don’t have time--”
“Sure!” said Jim.
Alyson debated for half a moment as to whether or not to argue with Jim, but she decided against it. A hot bath was just what she needed.
The farmer led them to the house, which wasn’t far from the barn. “Nancy, Blair? We got company.”
Nancy, a plump woman like her husband, came out of the house. “Oh, you dears, what happened to you?”
“Got put off the train a mile up,” said the farmer. “I’m Oscar.”
“You come right on up now. Alyson you said? What a pretty name. This is my daughter Blair--”
A child that looked like she had been squashed sideways, with oriental-type eyes and a round face looked up at Alyson. Alyson gulped - the two people here were probably first cousins or maybe even closer than that. She honestly didn’t want to know what made the child have Down Syndrome.
The child opened her mouth of black teeth and gave a sound of “Arhaaaa.”
“She likes you,” said Nancy, and started up the stairs. “I’ll warm up some water for you.”
Alyson was surprised they had cold running water. After she went to the bathroom and the woman came up with a huge tub of scalding hot water, Alyson poured some cold water but kept it hot and sunk luxuriously into the tub.