He could have passed for a banker. Passed for the mailman. Passed as the man down the hall who walks by a thousand times, says hello day in and day out, but his name dances on the tip of the tongue, stays buried in the brain, unavailable for recall. His is the face seen at the bar when the fight breaks out, but nobody can describe him when the police arrive. Complete milquetoast.
He was also in Boston. Returning home on the Red Line after secreting himself into the back of an open Harvard lecture, because he enjoyed obscure Latin authors. He had just listened to a discussion on the fragmentary Cynegetica, three hundred twenty-five hexameters on hunting by the third-century Marcus Nemesianus. The impassioned professor had announced at the end of the lecture that next week’s discussion was eleven eclogues erroneously attributed to Titus Calpurnius. He would argue that they belong to Nemesianus.
Waiting on the platform for the inbound train to downtown Boston that should arrive soon—theoretically, at least—he stood there inside a throng of students, shoppers, and tourists. He showed no signs of impatience, content to turn his mind to the question of the authorship of the eclogues. He knew that the train was coming when he’d heard the long shrill metallic groan as it took the curve into Harvard Square T-station. He ignored the latecomers in the distance who tried to run down the ramp and make the train, jamming themselves into the first car. He habitually took the car towards the rear so he would not be one of the first faces exiting.
He found his seat inside the crowded car. A man of indeterminate age marked off the seat next to his by throwing down a hefty shoulder bag, nearly crushing his feet, and then casting down another bag, a backpack, which he swung around, barely missing him.
He said nothing. His face expressed nothing.
Once seated, his neighbor wrested off his winter coat, intruding in his personal space without a smile or an excuse me. The rude man, divested of his baggage, then proceeded to check all his mobile devices. The non-descript man could see that the cell phone had no messages.
The man next to him thumbed a quick text or a tweet, not knowing that it was all rather useless because there was no reception or possibility for a signal between Harvard Square and the next stop, Central Square.
The two men seemed settled in for the ride. Bodies stood and held sway with the train’s movements either by balancing like urban surfers or by hanging on from overhead straps like military airborne on a plane from which they hoped that they could jump from soon.
Finding at last that his phone was incommunicado, the rude man thumbed further buttons, and it began to emanate something that must pass for music. Treble flattened to a rhythmic buzz, bass all but gone, only the bare skeleton of the melody line and harmonic tempo remained.
The man let his mind drift to Nemesianus. It had been many years since he read Haupt’s De Carminibus, which identified Nemesianus as the author of the last four Eclogues. Haupt had offered some argument for keeping the remaining seven with Calpurnius.
The tinny music became more insistent. A simple, three-chord development, classic AABA melodic structure.
The train entered the darkness and there were the flickering images of an advertisement passing by like a movie made from the thumbed edge of a matchbook as the train neared Central Square.
Then came the sniffling.
The unencumbered man blew his nose into a piece of tissue that had outlived usability, but its owner nonetheless thought he could parcel out one more meager area for his stuffed-up nose. Nobody looked when the man inhaled and made that gurgling winter-cold sound.
Haupt. Calpurnius. What was it that the professor had seen in those other seven to lead him to ignore the differences Haupt had seen?
The music changed again, to another three-chord, ballad-like ditty, the progression through tonic, dominant, and subdominant drawing in the man’s attention against his will. Music always had that effect. He could listen with rapture; he could listen with disgust, as he did then. But he couldn’t not listen.
His neighbor used the snot rag to wipe his watery eyes after he had frayed the last of the tissue with a trumpet blast.
Again annoyed, he turned his mind to recalling hexameters.
The music modulated into the dominant minor. The inconsiderate miserable next to him coughed without covering his mouth. Disgusting. Charles Street into Park Street Station was another opportunity for an anonymous dark tunnel and more metallic screeching. It was less than two minutes between stops. He stood up before the darkness came and squared himself off in front of the man with the bags to take the door when it opened. He knew that there would be sound, a bend in the rails that would jolt the unseasoned traveler forward.
It went dark. The train took the curve. Those who rode the train daily took the mechanical rounding of the rail with unknowing habit, reflexive muscle memory. He lunged forward and whispered an indecipherable excuse me in the dark.
He got off early at Park Street and went for the concourse. He knew that in the next stop or two the seated man would loll back and forth and others might think that he was asleep. It would likely be the third stop— Broadway Station—that the train might reveal the man’s true state.
The body would fall forward to the floor. Dead.
The MBTA police would come and investigate the disturbance, then the BPD, the Boston Police Department. It would take little time for the inevitable conclusion: ice pick through the larynx. There would be the cataloguing of all those bags and their contents, a review of surveillance films at every station since the victim had boarded the MBTA train; but there would be nothing.
Just crowds of people; and if anyone had noticed that a man had gotten up near the victim before the lethal darkness they would still have nothing. A hat hid the hair. Sunglasses obscured the face. Gloved hands would preempt fingerprints. Nothing left for them except snot rags to bag.
He had already walked the concourse to get above ground. Gone. He was a man of no qualities but of certain skills.
On assignment in Boston.
COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Gabriel Valjan
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing
Dates for Wasp’s Nest: Paperback Pre-Sale via Barnes & Noble: 11/2/2012; Paperback Release via Amazon and Barnes & Noble: 11/23 and eBook Release: 12/7/2012.
Roma, Underground is still available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Wasp’s Nest also offers readers an excerpt of the third installment of the Roma Series, Threading the Needle, which is scheduled for release in August 2013.
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