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Patriots. Expatriates.

Travelers. Interlopers.

By Matthew FrommPublished 2 years ago Updated 7 months ago 21 min read
Patriots. Expatriates.
Photo by Peter Jackson on Unsplash

The white china cup clattered against the serving plate as the train hit a soft bump. He stared glassy-eyed as the coffee within swirled. Mountains flitted by his window, their gray dominance only interrupted by the lush green landscape at their base.

A pulsing pain thumped under his tan bowler hat. Where am I? Last thing he remembered was the cafe in Zurich. It had been a brilliant afternoon. She was supposed to be there. Had she been there?

Kachunk, Kachunk, Kachunk. A serving girl strolled down the aisle of the dining car and spoke rapidly. He couldn’t keep up through the pain and instead stared back at her blankly. He did manage to detect the subtle swiss accent in her German. She departed awkwardly after a moment's pause while he took a sip of the cooled beverage. The china shook in hands that had once been so full of strength, now worn by age. Zurich was supposed to be somewhat of a retirement for him. A quiet place far from the action, as opposed to the home office in Rotterdam. Years in Hong Kong, Dublin, Jerusalem, and wherever duty took him all had worn on him and they said Zurich was to be a quiet posting where he could serve the Crown as well as he could in his twilight years. The Great War interrupted those plans. The cup shook as his papery hands returned it to the saucer.

Agent Edward Casterly reached into the pocket of his tan overcoat. Nothing. Right, first things first once we get the bearing. Find luggage, ticket, anything. He’d been in worse situations before, that business in Burma rose to the forefront of his mind; he chased away those memories as he surveyed the dining car. Four others occupied it; two ate together at the opposite end, a black-haired lady of maybe forty watched out the window, and the serving girl sat quietly in a corner waiting. Everywhere else was empty, even the bar.

The sun broke over the peaks which dominated his window. Morning sun, off my right side. Traveling north, slightly easterly. And with all haste, at that. He added the last thought as the train bounced against the tracks again. He ran his hand under his bowler hat to where the pulsing pain came from. It was tender to the touch, but no blood. That was good. Think, man, think! You were at the cafe, with water, no wine. I was working. What happened next?

“Scheisse!” The yell came from one of the two men eating at the booth. Casterly focused his old ears on the man, roused by the obscenity. I was at the cafe to meet her. She said she had information regarding the Germans. Yes, that was it. What was the information? Did I see her? He turned and watched the man dab at a spill on his gray uniform, emblazoned with the Kaiser’s Iron Cross. Casterly looked back out the window. Obviously the alps. Where are we heading? Into Germany? Austria-Hungary? That would make sense. Military Attaché to the Kaiser’s most crucial ally. Why depart from Switzerland then? How long have I been asleep? His thoughts went back to his luggage. The ticket he assumed would be in there would prove most helpful. Behind him, the officers finished their meal and prepared to depart. He listened intently for which door they would leave through. The server came around again, and he finished his coffee.

“Ma’am, would you mind charging to my room?” Casterly said in perfect Swiss German. She nodded and scribbled the information on a small notepad. Her hands tremble as they write. Interesting. He thanked her again, and she spirited back to the same car the officers had disappeared through. 31b was scribbled across the bottom. Well, it’s a start.

The rest of the sleeper cars were as empty as compartment 31b, and the empty bed looked as appetizing as a hot English Breakfast. He closed the shutters on his compartment and set to work examining every nook and cranny of the small, wood-lined space. Casterly started in the wardrobe but found no clothes hanging there. Short trip it seems. He reached under the cot and found a solitary leather briefcase stashed beneath, covered by another of the Kaiser’s Iron Crosses and the name Pvt. Von Clausewitz.

Another memory shot across his mind's eye at the sight. She sat across from him at the cafe and extended a small letter adorned with a scribbled address. Pulsing pain chased away the rest of it. The train bounced again, rattling the shutters of the small cabin. Casterly glanced back at the door, making sure no wandering eyes found their way in, before turning his attention to the contents of the briefcase.

His pale fingers fumbled with the clasp momentarily. The train bounced again, and the briefcase tumbled to the floor, Papers exploding across the ratty blue carpet—bloody hell.

He gathered them up and placed them back on the bed. The letterheads and strings of german looked like a formal military script. His head and feet purred as Casterly laid down to review them. The transcripts revealed little, and what they did, he already knew. His eyes traced details of the time of departure from Zurich but no destination. Everything else was surely in a cipher that would take days to break, if possible at all.

Casterly stroked the loose skin on his neck as he thumbed through another cable to the esteemed Pvt. Clausewitz. What were you doing in Zurich? Why weren’t you on the front with the rest of your hun brethren? The rest of the papers proved equally useless, and he returned them to the briefcase before shutting his eyes–just for a moment–against the pain in his head.

His footsteps reverberated off the stones of the medieval alley, drowned out by the gentle waves only an alley over before their sound could carry to searching ears. The tip was good. The prey was near. He flexed fingers that felt younger than they had in a decade. He reached toward the door that appeared from nowhere. How he knew where it was, he didn’t know, but what he searched for lay just beyond the threshold. All he had to do was open it and…

Bugger. The train bounced again, and it roused him from his sleep. The sun disappeared from the horizon. Casterly rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The pieces of the puzzle coalesced as he roused himself. I met with her. She gave me the information, and then I went after him. The her was still elusive. The him, he now assumed, was the esteemed private Von Clausewitz.

Casterly turned out his coat pockets. Tiny specks of blood dotted the cotton, and he could only assume their origin. He wouldn’t have been an effective agent of the Crown if he couldn’t put these puzzles together, even if the reasons still evaded him. His thoughts traveled back to the dining car, and he said a silent prayer that no one approached him then. He read back over the cable addressed to Pvt. Erich Von Clausewitz, whom he now needed to become. Erich, Edward, close enough. One piece of the puzzle tucked into place.

The sound of footsteps in the hallway intermixed itself with the Kachunk of the bougies below. There had to be more here, Casterly knew it, but the pain returned from the burgeoning lump on the back of his head. Next step was to figure out where this damned train was heading—this damn bowler. The thing rubbed against the pulsing lump that he assumed the Pvt. placed there in a last act of defiance against the Crown. In a frustratingly futile attempt to gain a moment of reprieve, Casterly pulled the thing off and found the next piece of the puzzle.

The ends of the thread bobbed lightly with the swaying compartment, the stitching running perpendicular to the brim. A smile broke his pale lips at his own trained genius, and Casterly pulled out the thread. You’ve done it again, old bloke. The smile turned first to confusion and then trepidation as instead of papers, orders, or anything that he would have expected himself to hide within the stitching, the smallest pistol he had ever seen fell into his palm.

The pathetic thing fit into the palm of his hand. Fashionable with some of the ladies of Zurich and Northern Italy, he had never seen one up close. The mountains gave way to rolling green countryside. Well, if I’m going to die, at least it’s for my King and country. A fresh smirk returned at the thought. He was the best, after all. If anyone could get out of this, it was Edward Casterly. The sun was somewhere overhead; they had turned north, deep into the black heart of the hun. He tucked the pistol into the depths of his overcoat before stowing the briefcase back under the bed. Right. A gun and a train. Someone’s meant to not get off of it.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tension shot through him at the sound of the knuckle on the glass. Casterly controlled his nerves before stealing a glance through the beige shutters. A massive figure in a brown overcoat obscured the door, face covered by a wiry beard. The man could have fought a bear to the death. Casterly opened the door all the same.

“Ahh, comrade, you’re awake!” The hulking man said, “I thought we wouldn’t see you till we made the ferry.” He finished and made a mocking gesture of a man stumbling down the hall. Well done, sir. Feigning drunkenness to cover disorientation. Sir Cumming would be proud. The pride covered the pain for a moment.

“Coffee and a nap helped, sir,” Casterly replied in perfect German.

“And now it’s time for eating. Come!” The hulking man strode back toward the dining compartment with Casterly at his heels. His German, while good, carries traces of Slavic. Must be something concerning the Austrians. Casterly stumbled slightly as the train swayed over a bumpy stretch of track. They had shown no signs of slowing down since he’d awakened. Something told him the big man had the answers he needed.

The dining car was as empty as it was when Casterly awoke, besides the addition of a bartender.

“You comrade, stew and two vodkas, plus whatever the Pvt. wants!”

Casterly nodded, “Just stew and water. Thank you.”

“Of course, Grigory. Sir.” The bartender said with a bow and directed a new server to tend to the food. Grigory took up the entirety of the booth.

“They wanted to shoot you at the station last night. The Commandant insisted. I told him I’d hope anyone going on this journey had the sense to get drunk before!”

“I thank you, my friend,” Casterly said with feigned familiarity. I hope I don’t have to reciprocate with a bullet in your head. It would have to be a well-placed one. With only one shot, if it didn’t kill him immediately, Casterly was certain Grigory could have ripped the old man’s arms off and beat him to death with them before understanding there was a bullet in him. Casterly’s water spilled as the car swayed again; the massive man had already finished the first of his Vodkas.

His thoughts returned to the woman in the cafe, her details coming into focus. Her thick black hair and green eyes hid the final piece of the puzzle. What information had she given me on that pleasant patio? What details did she give which were so dangerous that it was safer only to smuggle the assassination weapon?

“It’s a historic time, isn’t it, comrade? Our victory will be at hand soon, and our journey will be remembered forever.” Grigory said, drawing Casterly back. He looked out over the lush landscapes of southern Germany. They passed a farmhouse crumbling into the field, its beams broken from neglect. Grigory downed his second vodka and called for a third. He continued, “so many dead; the capitalists will pay.” The big man had a scar that ran down below his chin, stopping just before his Adam's apple.

“They will indeed,” Casterly said as he stared absently at the landscape. His nerves were seeping into his bones. One misstep, and he’d be dead before he knew why he was here. He may not know this Grigory, but he could sense the danger around them. It didn’t take a world-class spy to see this man was trouble, and Casterly would have bet his pension there was an entire train of Grigory’s around them. He needed to mirror them the best he could.

“Ahh, one of us wearing the Iron Cross, I wouldn’t have guessed. But I suppose that makes sense–Many thanks, comrade.” He waved to the server as another round of Vodka appeared. “Have you fought at all? On the front, I mean?”

Casterly racked his brain for a response that would survive cross-examination. “Sadly all over, never on the front.” Casterly raised his palms toward his face, “not much fighting left in these bones. I’ve served in the Pacific and Africa. I’ve seen it all.”

“I could tell you’re not from here,” Grigory said. Ice ran through Casterly’s bones.

“I’m not,” Casterly said calmly against the tension within and without his view from the countryside. “Well, I should say, my family isn’t. Great grandfather fought against Napoleon, got himself shot outside Danzig and met a Prussian nurse, been here ever since.” Half-truths that would keep him alive. In reality, it had been the other way around. “War for Empire is awful everywhere.” He added the last part against his own disposition. The Empire had given his family life, and he owed the Crown for that.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty to draw you to the cause. Fought the Hapsburg dogs myself. Still can hear the screams and the cannons on the quiet nights. Those Austrian dogs forget that it’s Russian land they sit on. It’ll be ours again one day.”

Casterly motioned for another glass of water and returned his now empty bowl. “Tough fighting down there. All over the cursed Balkans. Where are you from yourself?”

“A symptom of Imperial disease. If not there, it would have been elsewhere. Across the globe, we are repressed. I come from a small village where the czar enslaved our families for centuries. And for what? All we wanted was some land to call our own.”

“All we can hope for is a quick end to the hunne–” Casterly’s breath caught in his throat at the slip, and his palms went clammy. For the first time, his eyes met Grigory’s. The pause felt infinite as Casterly waited for all to fall into place within the big Russian’s brain, for him to smash Casterly through the window. “--hated British.” Casterly managed to say, silently praying his indiscretion not go noticed. Grigory held his vodka to his lips.

“The most hated of all. Besides Nicholas, of course. The empire that spreads from sunrise to sunset or whatever the hell they say. May our comrades all across the globe crush them. We will come to their aid once our victory is achieved.”

“Here, here,” Casterly said and tipped his water towards Grigory. The train swayed as it pulled through a small village. He watched as the station blurred by.

“Look out there. Drab like a funeral. No boys running through the streets, no fathers at the market or the pub. All for what? Soon our red tide will cover the world, dyed by their blood. By Russian blood that soaks our lands. Maybe we’ll spare your Prussia, but somehow I doubt it. The festering disease of Imperialism, of capitalism, needs to be cut out. Our brothers have seized St. Petersburg, and soon we’ll join them to avenge the Martyrs of 1905.”

Casterly’s intuitions were correct. These were dangerous people. What was the Kaiser playing at? His head suddenly swam with pain. He needed to solve this puzzle. There was more here. Something terrible. I should have packed a thicker coat. “I wish us all the best, friend. Bartender, I’ll have a beer,” he said as he silently racked his brain, trying to remember their contacts in the Russian Empire. Bloody Hell, even if I could get to Berlin, I could probably get a cable out, a warning. The pain from his head radiated down his neck and into his shoulders. He needed to figure out the who. Then I’ll worry about the escape.

“Thank you again for not shooting me, comrade. Maybe I’ll join you in St. Petersburg. The trip back to Berlin might be difficult.” Casterly said.

Grigory laughed and slammed the empty vodka glass on the table. The bartender jumped and rattled the hanging glasses behind him. “My friend, all are welcome in the revolution!” Russia it is.

“Thank you, my new friend. I’m sure my commandant will excuse my desertion.” Casterly had to admit the Germans made good beer.

“He’ll be dead soon enough. One way or another.” Grigory said. “Seriously, comrade, if you want to join us. There should be room on the boat. We’ll introduce you to him, and you’ll see. Who knows, maybe you’ll carry the revolution to Prussia! It should have come from there anyway, but once again, we Russians must bear that burden. First the Huns, then the Mongols, and now the greatest enemy yet. Yes Sir. We will crush them all!” He raised another vodka, and Casterly greeted him with the dregs of his beer. The “him” has to be the target. Everything was falling into place. Long had they watched the communists at home, for them to be a nuisance abroad was no surprise. Would the Kaiser risk another revolt against his own cousin? It was one thing to fight across Flanders, but to fan the flames at the palace…Even the British weren’t that cruel.

“You know, why wait? If we can get you on the boat, let’s do it. I’m sure your commandant in Berlin won’t be too happy after the station, and a good trip to Siberia is good for morale!”

Right Chap. You’ve been in worse. Grigory rose and swayed with the dining car.

“Come, come!” He said. It wasn’t a question. Casterly rose, despite the weight of the pistol in his jacket pocket, pulling him back to the booth with the pleasant countryside views, not yet consumed by the great war raging all around them. It’s the gamble, isn’t it? Now might be the only opportunity with the target. Or it might not be the target. If I fail, I die—no chance to get to Berlin. But if I succeed, no need. He spared himself a glance out the window while he weighed his options. Casterly had one shot. He had to succeed.

A memory flashed across his brain. She sat there, her jet black hair reflecting the midmorning Zurich sun. Her hand, full of youth, extended towards him. He took the postcard with the scribbled address on it, but there was something else. Below it was something rubbery, a texture unlike paper. He shuffled his fingers, and the corners of a miniature portrait began to move from obscurity into clarity. A face began to appear. His eyes met hers, eyes full of terror and urgency. Eyes fearful of what was to come next, or what may come. Eyes full of desperation.

“Comrade?” Grigory said, his foot already through into the next car.

Casterly shook himself back to the present. For King and Country. “Lead on.”

He followed Grigory into the darkened sleeper car, having to double his speed to keep up with the massive man’s stride.

“This will be great, a great addition to our cause,” Grigory said. The shades in this section of the train were all drawn. Light shimmered as the shutters swayed, yet it grew darker as they made their way into the next train. Dark clouds started to obscure the April sky in the gaps between cars.

Specks of rain dotted Casterly’s glasses as they entered the final car. Two bearded men in heavy brown jackets sat just inside the door.

“It’s alright, Pvt. Von Deutsche is one of us.” Grigory said with a laugh at his own joke. The accompanying friendly slap almost knocked Casterly over. The guard shook his head but let them by all the same. Casterly slackened the grip on the pistol he didn’t even realize he had gripped. He wiped the sweat off his palms on the inside of his jacket before giving a jovial wave.

Grigory slid open another door with shutters drawn, and the unlikely couple stepped into the lounge car. A smattering of individuals sat around reading. Casterly couldn’t take in their details as Grigory led them down the aisle toward a table in the back. A woman sat with her back to the aisle. She turned and smiled at Grigory as he approached. Her face was stern, one that Casterly certainly saw many hardships during her time, yet her smile showed the forged, genuine appreciation for those who stood with her. She reclined, and the man across from her slid into Casterly’s view.

Before the war, Casterly had been in Paris. Back when it was the center of Europe–before the Kaiser marched across Flanders and turned that country into a living hell. As he sat along the Seine, Casterly had watched a moving picture by the magician Méliès. The wickedness of the vampire in that film struck him at the time as a perfect vision of evil. Yet, it paled in comparison to the man who sat before him now. He was sure the man was about to reveal fangs with his high cheekbones and bald head. Casterly stared into the eyes black as night and knew he would soon be shown for the interloper that he was.

Agent Edward Casterly had killed many men before. So many that it had become as mechanical as breathing. There was no longer any romance in it. No grand duels, no heroism. Just kill or be killed. He justified his actions for years by knowing that this was the truth. He knew the eyes that glared back at him were thinking the same.

His fingers wrapped around the minuscule grip of the tiny pistol.

His breathing slowed, and he refused to break his gaze. Next to him, Grigory spoke. Neither of them heard the words.

His stance shifted ever so slightly. He put his weight through the toes on his left foot into a trained marksman’s stance. They trembled ever so slightly. Sound and light stood still.

His hands pulled the pistol from his pocket, aiming before he even pulled it to the apex of his stance. The train swayed.

His finger pulled the trigger.

His bullet engrained itself just over his target's left shoulder.

The two men stared at each other silently even as Grigory and the rest of the guards tore towards Casterly. His target stood as the pistol clanged to the floor of the swaying train. Strong arms pulled at the old man. Casterly stared at the hole in the wall in disbelief before crashing to the floor under the weight of the guards.

Silence fell across the swaying compartment as the man spoke.

“I should not be surprised that the imperial vermin would attempt to stop that which cannot be stopped. Such is their hubris.” He spoke only slightly above a whisper and rested his hands on his back as he stared down at the old man now pinned to the blue carpet. ”It is disappointing. Look at the pathetic attempt by the Czar to obstruct our great journey!” He yelled to the hate-filled laughter of the assembled revolutionaries.

“I’m the King’s man. You–” a swift kick to the ribs greeted Casterly before he could finish his assuredly profound statement. He coughed up ruby red blood upon the faded blue carpet. Grigory took pleasure in punishing his betrayer.

The target bent down, his pale skin inches from Casterly’s. He pressed a finger to his mouth, bisecting his beard and mustache.

“King, Czar, Kaiser, they are all the same. Their end is as inevitable as yours. Nothing can stop this train. Can stop this journey. Can stop the coming tide. The end of your Bourgeois masters is at hand. Our new world arises. Grigory, toss him outside.”

The last thing Casterly saw was the sole of the boot smashing down onto his face.

The train rolled on.


About the Creator

Matthew Fromm

Full-time nerd, history enthusiast, and proprietor of random knowledge. The best way to find your perfect story is to make it yourself.

Here there be dragons, and knights, and castles, and quests for entities not wished to be found.

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Comments (4)

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  • Mack D. Ames19 days ago

    This is a very gripping read, Matthew, and I'm right where you want me to be: Left wanting more!

  • River Joy4 months ago

    This was powerful and really well done. I'm glad I got to read this today, thanks for sharing!

  • Judey Kalchik 4 months ago

    This swept me along the track of the story with the power of that moving train. Great piece!

  • Stephanie Hoogstad6 months ago

    That was a very well-researched story with a powerful ending. I’m surprised that I didn’t see it before now. Excellent job.

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