While seeking to resolve his wife’s disappearance, a travel writer uncovers mysteries in the White Mountains that lead to ghosts, CIA revelations, and disturbing answers to political events that shook America in the 1960s. The story begins with an unusual train ride.
Chapter One: Train Ride
He wasn’t sure what to say or do.
He just kept staring down at the body looking up at him.
The conductor and a steward had rolled it over so that now those cold, gray eyes were in full view. If he glanced at them a certain way, they seemed to be posing a question.
But now it wasn’t going to happen. Neither the eyes nor the face behind it could interrogate him any longer.
Yet instead of feeling relieved, he felt lost.
He still couldn’t reconcile the face with reality.
It wasn’t a whole face, but a face frozen in separate parts. As if at the moment of death, the man at his feet had been redrawn by Picasso as a victim of Guernica. Cheeks, ears, eyes and nose all refused to come together in an expression of normal symmetry. Instead they resembled a mosaic of broken glass with blood imitating cracks.
He remembered how the man looked when he was alive—square-jawed, blond-haired, and Germanic, like Hollywood’s version of Nazi officers in World War II epics.
A mysterious figure who seemed to want to get something from him.
He hoped the conductor and the steward, and the passengers sitting on either side of him, hadn’t noticed their interactions when the man was still alive.
The train officials were still asking questions.
But so far, the conclusion was simple.
It was a fluke. An accident. That’s what everyone was saying.
As improbable as it was, the man had tripped and fallen, twisting in a most bizarre manner, and his gun had gone off from the jolt, shooting himself in the heart.
Once on board the train into Manhattan, he had sat down at a table with three other people. Next to him sat a young man reading H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. He appeared to be Chinese American, with a slender neck and a delicate chin.
Roger and the boy faced a woman whose low-cut dress magnified her ample figure. She wanted to sleep, but the train kept jarring her awake. She opened her eyes, tinted blue with contact lenses—and then, gradually, shut them again, bringing the fleeting presence of dream into their tiny, seated community.
Beside her rode an attractive young lady with light-brown hair. She was busy with her computer, doing something for her job in New York. She looked aristocratically Russian, as if she, herself, had been crafted by Fabergé.
As the train glided forward toward its first jolting stops, he had the strangest sense that someone was following him. Not a very original idea. But this man stood out.
For one thing, he was wearing a trench coat in May.
He remembered how the man entered the car, seemingly on his way into another. Yet when he took his seat, the man paused. Roger stared at the intruder who never actually acknowledged him, but then abruptly sat down next to an older woman.
After tickets were taken, the man remained there in a perfect position to observe him. To watch, as they say in the movies, his ‘every move.’
Roger tried to tell himself that any basis for concern was groundless—all inside his head. That he was just overreacting.
Later, when he looked up, he glimpsed the man talking to the woman like he might have known her, rendering his seeming paranoia ridiculous.
The man took a donut from a small computer bag and began to eat it, still not quite managing to look relaxed. Seconds later when his eyes met Roger’s they assumed a new ferocity, like a tiger’s, luminous with a predator’s hypnotic precision.
As they pulled out of Providence, Roger looked down the empty tracks blurred by movement and vacant of life.
He thought back to the disappearance of his wife, Rachel. She had been staying at the Presidential Inn in the White Mountains, where they found her dark blue Nissan Quest abandoned near Echo Lake. There were tire tracks from another car beside hers, but the police hadn’t been able to trace them.
And now every day began with a raw burst of anxiety, rage, grief and bewilderment. He was surrounded by the shreds of things that didn’t make sense. Clues that led to too many places at once. Haunting obsessions that took him nowhere. Scenes unfolding that he didn’t wish to belong in.
Soon after she was gone he realized that she wouldn’t come back.
And then he, too, walked among the ‘missing.’ Searching for himself while searching for her. Walking among the dead while hoping for love and companionship.
Nearly a year had passed since the Presidential’s innkeeper, Ben Bishop, had rolled out the red carpet for his wife to pursue her project—a “What/If” article for the national monthly, Currents Magazine. A probing inquiry drawn from many different perspectives and sources, after the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death had failed to produce much of interest in the ‘assassination discussion.’
The concept was: “What/if a select few of the so-called ‘conspiracists’ were actually onto the truth? What would it look like? When you added the clues together, what made the most sense?”
The White Mountains offered his wife, in her words, “a perfect place to write,” as well as some unique local sources, including Bishop himself, who had once worked for the CIA.
And now, suddenly, the CIA was once again in Roger’s thoughts.
It occurred to him that the man in the trench coat could easily be central casting for a rogue operative.
And yet the very idea seemed absurd.
Why would someone be pursuing him now? Roger Thor Martens who was just a travel writer on his way to New York to meet with his publisher?
Nearly three hours later, as they neared Stamford, the man in the trench coat got up. As he approached Roger, the train jerked. He leaned forward so that his large, red hand spread like a giant, menacing spider, its fingers angling toward Roger’s chest. Then, almost delicately, the second finger pointed upward at Roger’s chin in a gesture of seeming accusation.
The Russian-looking girl also noticed the intrusion, widened her eyes, and then forced herself to go back to her work. The young man reading The Outline of History brought the book closer to his face. And the dozing woman with the low-cut dress turned away.
Roger got a good look at the man’s face, or at least his profile. He was struck by how small the man’s ears were. They appeared to be sewn on, as if they once belonged to someone else. The man glared back at him from his deeply set sockets. He seemed to be saying, “I want something from you. And you know what it is!”
Then the intruder turned his head away, abruptly regained his balance, stood up erect, and marched straight ahead—presumably to either the kitchen area or the men’s room.
After leaving Stamford, the gentleman in the trench coat came back.
As he approached, he looked down once again at Roger accusingly.
When he came within a yard or two, he opened his mouth as if to make a declaration, or more likely to pose a question. He seemed to know something Roger didn’t. Something about Roger, himself. About Roger’s situation. Or maybe even something about Rachel.
Roger felt that he had to act, to respond with a gesture of his own.
Then his entire body spasmed.
In a kind of St. Vitas Dance, his left shoe slid out from beyond his seat, pulling his leg into the aisle so that just the tip of his foot protruded. As the man inched closer, glaring down at him with a feral stare, Roger felt his leg push out another inch farther.
The result was instant collision.
On impact Roger raised his knee several inches, or rather the knee raised itself in an arcane martial-arts move that it had mastered quite on its own.
With this, the man collapsed on the train floor into a heap, hitting the carpet like a felled tree.
Then the most amazing thing happened.
He heard a shot.
A gun had fired.
The man convulsed in odd nervous pulses like he was suddenly inhabited by snakes, his arms jerking in front of him. Within seconds the tremors stopped, and the man became inanimate inside his clothes.
Reflexively, Roger, and several people around him, yelled for help.
In the commotion, the napping lady woke up with a startled expression that turned to disgust—like someone had just spilled coffee all over her—before she began to grasp the full extent of what happened. The beautiful young lady with Russian eyes sat back in her seat, her head hitting the cushion with a jolt so hard that she bit her lip. The young man sitting next to him finally shut The Outline of History, collapsed onto his chair, and turned to stare down at the floor.
Roger, on the other hand, became totally numb—his mind frozen in near paralysis as he felt himself falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Within a minute, the train’s conductor and one attendant came with their dark vests and billowing white shirts. A man and a woman. Both stooped over the body, rummaged through pockets and found two passports, each with separate identities.
They announced that once the train stopped in New York they would have to detain the passengers for interrogation.
After several minutes trying to reimagine himself in the so-called ‘real world,’ it finally occurred to Roger that he should call Sam Pullman, his publisher, to let him know he might be late.