Authors: Mark Edwards
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Thrillers, #General, #Crime
ALSO BY MARK EDWARDS
What You Wish For
Because She Loves Me
Catch Your Death
All Fall Down
From the Cradle
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Mark Edwards
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
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Cover design by Lisa Horton
In memory of Philip Davies, 1971–1990
Parts of this novel are set in Romania. I have taken some liberties with the geography of that country, including the route taken by the night train from Budapest to Sighisoara. The town of Breva is fictitious, as is Thornberry Bridge in London.
he overnight train to Sighisoara, due to leave Budapest at eleven, was running late. The station was quiet and unwelcoming, bars and shops shut for the night, figures lurking in the shadows around the edge of the building. We sat on the hard floor, tired after a day wandering around the city in the summer heat with our backpacks. A gang of teenagers hung about nearby, shouting and posturing and badgering passers-by for cigarettes. A middle-aged man approached us, asking if we needed a hot meal and somewhere to stay, his oily smile vanishing as we shooed him away. Armed police strolled about in pairs, scrutinising us suspiciously as they passed by.
So we were relieved when the train finally pulled into the platform and more travellers, though fewer than I expected, appeared as if from nowhere.
As we were about to board I pulled Laura against me and said, ‘I love you.’
She kissed me. ‘I love you too, Daniel. Even if you are a
‘Hey—’ I began, but she turned away, hauling her backpack onto the train and throwing a little smile over her shoulder that told me she wasn’t really mad with me. I followed her.
Passing the cosy, private sleeper compartments, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. It had been my turn to buy tickets and instead of booking a private sleeper compartment I had, at the last moment, bought seats in standard accommodation because they were half t
Laura noticed me looking through the window of the sleeper and stopped to join me. ‘It’s a shame, really,’ she said.
‘Well, I was quite looking forward to having sex on a train. I’ve never done that before.’
I slapped myself on the forehead. ‘Do you think it’s too late to change the tickets?’
But she laughed and went through from the relative luxury of the sleeper carriages into standard class. Laura surveyed the empty carriage and chose a pair of seats at the far end. She took her Kindle and a bottle of water out of her bag and settled back on the double seat, upholstered a long time ago in grey velvet, trying to get comfortable. I sat by the window, hoping the train had air-con powerful enough to blast away the night’s humidity. I took my glasses off to wipe the sweat from my face and put them back on in time to see a young couple running along the platform. They made it just before the train shuddered and lurched into motion. An announcement crackled over the speaker system and we were on our way.
The couple I’d seen running for the train almost fell into our carriage, panting, the man laughing while his female companion looked pissed off. They were carrying overnight bags, which they hefted into the baggage rack before taking the seats across the aisle from Laura and me. I smiled at them, then averted my eyes. Although we had befriended a number of couples on our trip around Europe in a transient way, exchanging email addresses and Twitter usernames, I preferred to observe someone first, make sure they weren’t crazy before engaging in conversation.
Going purely by appearance, they were a curious, mismatched couple. They were both in their mid-twenties but I would never have put them together. He was short and stocky, with cropped blond hair, and was wearing a khaki T-shirt and cargo pants. An average-looking guy who clearly spent a lot of time at the gym. In contrast, the girl was dressed all in black, with a leather jacket over a Stranglers T-shirt, plus tight jeans and biker boots. Her hair was black to match her clothes, with streaks of crimson. Beneath hooded, heavily made-up lids, her eyes were the colour of
. A shade away from black. She was several inches taller than him, about five foot ten, so when standing she towered over him, reminding me of Olive Oyl and Popeye.
They talked to each other in their own language. Eastern
, obviously, though I was unable to tell if they were from Hungary, Romania or some other part of this half-continent.
As the train made its way out of the city, another passenger came into the carriage from the other end. He was about forty, stocky, with cropped hair and an acne-scarred face. He had no luggage. Even though most of the seats in the carriage were empty, he sat diagonally opposite Laura and me. He appraised us, apparently not liking what he saw, then closed his eyes and fanned himself with a newspaper.
I watched Budapest go by, the lights of the city blinking out as the journey progressed.
‘I need a drink,’ I said after a while. ‘There should be a dining car open on the train somewhere.’
‘Not till it crosses the border.’
I looked up. It was the guy across the aisle. He shrugged good-naturedly and said, ‘The dining car doesn’t open till we reach Romania. In’—he checked his watch—
around two and a half hours.’
‘I knew we should have bought supplies in Budapest.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, jumping to his feet. ‘We have plenty.’ He fished a heavy carrier bag out of his luggage and crossed the aisle to sit opposite us. After a pause, his companion followed, settling down beside him and crossing her legs. He cracked open two cans of Hungarian lager and passed them to us before we could protest.
‘I’m Ion,’ he said, opening two more cans and taking a sip from his. ‘And this is Alina.’
he train windows were matte-black, the darkness broken only by the occasional glimpse of lights in the distance. I glanced at my reflection, my face stretched like melted plastic by some kink in the glass. It was creepy. I looked away and turned my attention to our new companions.
Ion laid his free hand on Alina’s knee, stroking it. So they
‘What brings you to Romania?’ he asked, grinning broadly. Beside him, Alina wore a more muted smile, seemingly bored.
Laura answered before I could. ‘We’re travelling round Europe. We’ve spent the last few weeks lying on beaches—’
‘—but we wanted to visit Eastern Europe, soak up some culture instead of rays.’
Ion nodded. ‘Good choice. Romania is the most beautiful country. Of course, there are many problems—poverty, with the Romani gypsies and so on.’ He waved a hand like this was a boring topic. ‘But this is real Europe. Far more interesting than a Span
I noticed that Alina rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly.
‘So you’re from Romania?’ Laura asked Alina, trying to draw her in.
Laura waited but no more words were forthcoming.
‘She’s from Sibiu,’ Ion said. ‘That’s where we’re heading now, to see her folks. I can’t wait to see if Alina’s mom is as smoking hot as her daughter.’
I smiled. ‘You speak excellent English. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising . . .’
‘No, not at all. That’s where Alina and I met—at English classes.’ He moved his hand further up his girlfriend’s leg. She remained stony-faced. ‘So where have you been on your journey round Europe?’ he asked, looking from Laura to me.
I took a deep breath. ‘We started off in Brussels, then travelled down through France, then Spain, a week in Ibiza, then into Italy—Rome and the Amalfi coast—then over to Greece, up through
That was it. Two glorious months condensed into a shopping list. The details, the memories, were precious to Laura and me. The trip, our Grand Tour as we self-mockingly labelled it, had been transformational. Being typical tourists on the Eiffel Tower and round the Louvre, people-watching and feeling all the knots in our muscles untie themselves as we finally relaxed after what had been an intense period back home. Going wild in Spain, dancing and drinking at the Benicassim music festival, clubbing all night and sleeping all day in Ibiza. Shopping and hiring scooters and more shopping in Rome. Making love on a beach on the Amalfi coast, lying under the stars and talking about the children we’d have when we got back to England. Snorkelling among a rainbow of fish off Santorini. Posing for so many photos in the Plitvice Lakes National Park that I began to feel like my soul was being eroded.
This was life, really lived, really experienced, a passage of magic that would flash before our eyes when we died. And to share it, to live through these experiences together, meant that Laura and I were closer than ever.
Talking to Ion and Alina, giving them this bare-bones outline of our trip, made me miss my best friend back home, Jake. He was the one person, apart from Laura, with whom I could be fully open and honest. Whenever I got the chance I emailed him with long accounts of what Laura and I had been doing, like I was sending him pages from my diary. In return, he told me about all the exciting stuff that was happening with him back in London, as he continued to work on making it as a musician.
I paused, wondering how much more to tell these strangers, not wanting to go into the details of how, in the last few days, in Dubrovnik and Budapest, fatigue had caught up with us. Maybe we were feeling homesick, despite the great time we were having, or feeling the human urge to settle, to spend a period in one place. But our legs felt heavier and it was hard to gather much enthusiasm for these two magnificent cities. Laura suggested heading back to Italy or Spain, renting an apartment and staying put for a while, but I was insistent that we had to continue the Tour. Press on with the plans. After Romania we were going to head north again: Russia, Germany, then Scandinavia. The Tour was scheduled to end on my thirty-fifth birthday in Stockholm. Then we would fly home, back to London.
To get married. To start a family. Not necessarily in that order. Laura’s own best friend, Erin, was pregnant, and I knew as soon as Laura met Erin’s baby she’d be keen to get pregnant as soon as possible. And that was fine by me.
‘And it’s just you two?’ Ion asked.
‘Sounds like you’ve had an awesome time.’
‘It’s been . . .’
‘Too good for words, yes?’
‘You got it.’
Before I could say any more, I noticed Ion frown in a surprised way at Laura, so I turned my head in her direction. She looked uncomfortable.
Ion said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry if we’re intruding. We can go back to our own seats . . .’
‘No, no, it’s not you.’ She leaned forward, and both Ion and I echoed her so we dipped into a huddle. Alina remained sitting upright.
‘Don’t look,’ Laura said. ‘But that guy over there keeps staring at me.’
I couldn’t help but look up. The man with cropped hair who had entered the carriage after Ion and Alina had his eyes open now and was reading a newspaper.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘He was . . . staring at my legs. He’s doing
I looked again and the man’s gaze drifted upwards to meet my eye. His expression was inscrutable but he maintained eye contact in a way few people in England would do. Eventually, with a humourless smile on his lips, he returned to his newspaper.
‘Let’s swap,’ I said to Laura, and she moved to the window seat so she was out of the stranger’s direct line of vision. In a way, I understood why he was looking at her, with her strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes and legs that were like the eighth
of the natural world. Tonight, she wore shorts, because it was hot, not because she enjoyed being stared at.
She should have been out of my league. Luckily for me, she was attracted to tall, geeky guys with glasses. My hair is an average brown colour, I’m too skinny and I look a little like the guy who gets sand kicked in his face in the old ads. But luckily, there are women out there who are attracted to guys like me rather than to the guys kicking the sand.
While Laura moved over, Alina turned round and frankly stared at the man, who was watching us again. Eventually, he looked away, a sneer on his face.
‘You come across a lot of guys like that,’ Ion said, ‘who think it’s OK to stare at women like they’re in a shop window. Alina gets it all the time.’
She nodded once.
I took Laura’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. I knew she would be feeling embarrassed so I said, ‘Let’s change the subject.’
‘Good idea,’ Ion said. ‘So what do you guys do? When you’re not travelling?’
‘Laura works in marketing,’ I said. ‘For a children’s charity.’
‘It’s really not,’ said my girlfriend.
‘But you’re doing something good.’
Laura sipped her beer. As the biggest lightweight I’d ever met, she would be tipsy by the time she’d finished. ‘It’s better than selling Coke,’ she said.
Ion widened his eyes.
‘I mean Coca-Cola.’
The three of us laughed. Alina was still flicking hostile looks at the guy opposite.
‘I guess you two don’t have kids?’ Ion asked.
‘No,’ Laura said, at the same time that I replied, ‘Not yet.’
He looked between us curiously.
‘This is our last big trip before we start a family,’ I said.
to start a family,’ said Laura. ‘You can’t take anything for granted. Not when you’re my age.’
‘You’re only thirty-four.’
We’d had this conversation many times. This was one of the reasons why we had come on this trip now. Laura’s biological clock was growing ever louder—she said she felt like the crocodile in
with a timepiece ticking inside her—and I was ready too. But after seeing our friends with children restricted to exhausting family holidays, I had suggested to Laura that we go on a big, final trip before we started nesting. And the trip was made possible by a stroke of good fortune—or rather, the result of a long period of intense work.
‘What about you?’ Ion asked me.
‘I’m a developer,’ I said. ‘I created an app for iPhones and iPads and sold it to one of the big tech companies.’ As ever, I was
about sounding modest, rather than boastful, when talking abou
‘Which is how we could afford to come on this trip,’
‘Which company?’ Ion asked. ‘Let me guess—Google?
‘No, Skittle.’ Skittle were one of the biggest of the new crop of tech companies that had sprung up over the last couple of years, specialising in mobile apps.
‘Wow. That’s beyond awesome. Did you hear that, Alina?’
She dragged her attention away from the window and nodded at me. ‘Great.’
‘So, are you famous in England?’ Ion asked, eyes shining.
‘No! I’m barely even famous in my own flat. What do you two do?’ I wasn’t allowed to talk about my app until it was officially announced; I had signed a confidentiality agreement. I deliberately aimed the question towards Alina, whose reticence was making me uncomfortable.
But Ion spoke up before his girlfriend had a chance. ‘Alina’s an illustrator.’
‘Really? What kinds of things?’
‘Comic books,’ she said, meeting my eye. For the first time, I saw a spark of something other than boredom. Pride, plus a hint of defiance, as if she expected to be mocked.
‘That’s so cool,’ I said, genuinely impressed.
‘Yeah,’ said Ion. ‘We’re going to collaborate on something, aren’t we?’ He rubbed her knee.
‘So, what, you’re a writer?’ I asked.
Before he could open his mouth, Alina said, ‘He does nothing.’
The volume was turned down on his smile. ‘That’s a little unfair.’
This was interesting: the sudden crackle of tension between them.
Ion turned his smile up again, but removed his hand from her knee. ‘OK, so I am between jobs at the moment. But I’m writing a book. Along with the, you know, thing with Alina.’
‘What’s it about? The book?’
‘Oh, just, like, my personal philosophy. Thoughts I’ve had about . . . stuff.’
Laura had gone to the toilet. I made a mental note to tell her about Ion’s book, knowing she would find it amusing.
As Ion was about to elaborate on his work in progress, the train pulled into a station. It was almost deserted, just a man in his sixties with an enormous, boxy suitcase.
Alina, to my surprise, jumped up and slipped through the door, helping the man onto the train, carrying his case into the carriage. The old man, who looked strong and fit enough to be able to han
e suitcase himself, thanked her in his own language then headed off to a seat at the other end of the carriage.
The four of us chatted for the next hour. Ion wanted to know all about the app I’d developed and we talked about that for a while, while Laura and Alina, who had come out of her cocoon after helping the older man, chatted about travel. Flattered by how interested and impressed Ion seemed—I was used to my friends’ eyes glazing over when I said anything at all about the app—I temporarily forgot all about my confidentiality agreement.
Towards the end of this conversation Hungarian border guards, wearing blue jackets and yellow high-visibility vests, got on the train and checked our passports. They studied Alina’s passport for a long time before finally passing on to the next passenger. Like the police at the station, they had guns on their hips.
After they’d gone and I’d put our passports and tickets back in my backpack, Laura whispered in my ear, ‘That guy was staring at me again.’
‘He’s looking at my reflection in the window.’
‘Are you sure you’re not being paranoid?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know.’ She flexed her shoulders and arched her neck. ‘I’m so tired.’
‘I know. Me too.’ I yawned.
‘But this seat is too uncomfortable.’
Ion, who had just returned from the toilet, overheard. ‘Hey, there’s an empty sleeper compartment just down the corridor. Why don’t you go and have a nap in there?’ His voice was hushed, conspiratorial. ‘It will be a couple of hours before the Romanian guards come through and we can keep an eye out for you, come and wake you just after we cross the border.’
‘I don’t know,’ Laura said.
‘It will be fine,’ Ion said.
‘I think it’s a good idea,’ I said to Laura.
She pulled a face, torn between her desire for sleep and her dislike of breaking rules.
‘Go on, Laura,’ Alina said. ‘I promise we’ll wake you.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I’ll set an alarm on my phone too. What time are we due to cross the border?’
Ion checked his watch. ‘We left Budapest forty minutes late, so it will be about three-ten. You’ve got just under two hours.’