Short story by JOHN A. BARRETT
Lionel Stone’s career at Wade’s Stockbrokers of London was over. His gambling habits, both at, and away from work ensured it. Certain to face fraud charges and probable imprisonment. Unless, he could replace the missing fifty thousand pounds … by Monday? His wife Sarah, had been patient with his reckless gambling, but she’d never forgive him for using his friends’ money while representing the firm.
As the commuter train gathered speed, Stone’s future spread hopelessly before him. His body ached and his breathing labored, as if he’d been kicked in the chest. Despair threatening to crumble his skull with vice-gripped tension. His inner voice screaming … failure!
Was his compulsive gambling a disease with no cure? Did he care anymore to wear the pretense of a grandiose lifestyle? Could he lose his wife’s steadfast support, along with the confidence of his friends and colleagues? Was the dreaded condemnation enough to …?
Alone in the carriage, daylight dissolved as the train entered the long familiar tunnel near his home station, his image reflected by the carriage window, amidst the interior lighting. Dispirited, Stone raised his newspaper, but a reflected headline from the window instantly caught his attention: ‘Outsider, Tainted Passion wins the Grand National at 100-1.’
That can’t be right, he reasoned, the Aintree race doesn’t run until tomorrow? He rechecked all the newspaper pages, but there was no such headline. Stone sneered, shaking his head. Probably wishful thinking from an old napping dream, induced by the rocking train. Besides, reflected writing reads backwards!
Regardless, the thought straggled his imagination. An omen, or a message from a guardian angel …? Yet as a gambler, Stone knew a horse called ‘Tainted Passion’ was in tomorrow’s race. He pondered the relevance, until the germ of an idea crossed his mind. Reinvigorated, he’d postpone the dire financial news for Sarah until after the race, or never if the horse won. He’d bet the last of his pilfered, stashed away funds and determine his future, either way.
‘Tainted Passion’ did win the Grand National, and as Lionel Stone collected the 100-1 winnings, he considered his extraordinary gift for seeing the future. Was it his destiny to be a wealthy man, a talent to use as he wanted?
Stone won more than enough to pay off his debts, although Wade’s irreparable tirade ensured Stone must leave the company, otherwise his shady dealings would be exposed to the Stockbroker’s Association. Then he’d never be allowed to conduct business in the city again.
Irritated by Wade’s discarded attitude, Stone quickly recovered, reveling in his good fortune. He opened a London office to advise, encourage and appropriate funds from willing investors in return for professional fees, plus performance bonuses.
Every working day, Stone took the train with a folded newspaper, while looking for the future, but it only worked when he was alone in the carriage, as today. The train came to the same tunnel of darkness, and Stone raised the newspaper to the business section. The reflected headline read: ‘Record High for Incorporated Oil Baffles Brokers’. That company had the lowest shares on the market for oil subsidiaries. This could make him a major player in the markets. And it did.
Within months Lionel Stone became a multi-millionaire, investors rewarding his business savvy with more investments for his profitable and respected business. He had an inner sense, telling him, and subsequently his investors, the right options, at the right time. Stone reasoned it also brought relief to Sarah’s earlier financial worries. His apparent gambling addiction, replaced by lucrative business strategies.
Wealth and popularity didn’t change him either. He still caught the evening train home each night, although he wasn’t often in the carriage alone, but he didn’t care. Stone had made a fortune, and could make the future work for him whenever he wanted, simply by leasing a private carriage. He’d heard that Timothy Wade Stockbrokers’ was in trouble and the firm up for sale. Stone incensed at the memory and manner Wade got rid of him last year. The way he resented Stone, despite him paying all outstanding debts, Wade never believed Stone came by the money honestly. Now Stone was a successful business executive, their situations were somewhat reversed. Wade close to bankruptcy, Stone ripe with more riches than he could ever imagine. Yet, Stone didn’t care about Wade’s misfortune, he wanted more. Revenge …!
Others also vied for Wades’ acquisition, but none more determined than Stone. He had to have it, but needed to know the actual selling price. He needed to peer into the future … again. He boarded the private train carriage with his newspaper and waited. The train stopped a couple of stations before the long tunnel, and Stone was surprised that his carriage suddenly had another occupant. A woman dressed in black, wearing a long coat and a wide brim hat with a veil obscuring her face, like she was coming from a funeral. The woman’s pose resembled his wife, slim, carrying an elegant air about her, as if she had once been a model like Sarah. Yet, there was something sinister about her, as if she had seen beyond the threshold … of darkness? Her body erect and still, head held high and looking straight ahead, as if contemplating an uncertain future.
The train began to move, but by the time it reached the station stop before the tunnel the woman remained in the carriage. Stone panicked! With urgency, he approached her and offered fifty pounds if she would immediately leave the carriage. No Response. Then he placed a hundred pounds on the seat beside her, but she made no move to take it, or acknowledge his presence. In a fit of rage, Stone yelled at the top of his voice that she should leave, he needed to be alone!
He was about to strike the woman, when she steadily rose from the seat, staring trance like through the mask of her shaded veil, as if deliberating a judgment. This was more than Stone could take. He opened the carriage door and grabbed for the woman, but she floated out onto the platform before he reached her, then disappeared. Was he going mad …?
The train started to move again, entering the tunnel within seconds. Stone reached for the newspaper’s business section, but no reflection of the future! Frantically, he turned to the front page, then caught a reflection: ‘Late Warning Kills Six in Devonshire Floods’. Nothing he could do about that. He crazily turned more pages, looking for a clue to outbid everyone else for Wade’s Stockbrokers. Then to his surprise, he saw his own photograph and a headline: ‘Business Magnet Lionel Stone Killed in Freak Train Accident’.
It can’t be true, it can’t be! His heart galloped, as he screamed to the empty carriage. He reached for the emergency communication cord and pulled hard, the train screeching to a halt just beyond the tunnel. Stone clambered fearfully out of the train, trembling with panic up the embankment to the roadway. He had to get away from the train.
Desperate to end the nightmare, he stepped in front of an approaching car, waving his arms with lunatic hysteria. The car stopped and Stone pleaded with the driver to give him a ride, but the man hesitated, unsure, suggesting he might drive on. Without further delay, Stone opened the car door and dragged the driver out, with the desperation of a man gasping for his last breath. Behind the wheel with lightning reflex, he drove off, distancing himself from the train, towards home … to Sarah. Free at last, and instantly relieved to be away from the train. Only one level crossing, then a straight road home.
Next day, newspapers announced: ‘Ministry of Transport officials have not yet identified the victim of a stolen car, who was killed at a level crossing when the gates failed to close for an unscheduled freight train. The investigation continues.’ SLQ