Beneath the branches, Balfour scraped away snow, made a bed of pine needles, and tested it for comfort. For a moment, he savoured the scent of resin that reminded him of his childhood in the Scottish glens. Then he concentrated on the mission. The mission that Campbell had so unexpectedly – and yet so timely for him -- dropped into his lap.
They’d agreed he’d wait at the point on the curve in the rail line where the lead locomotive would emerge from the trees. The driver would be breaking urgently to coax the weight of freight train and its unidentified cargo round the tight curve without mishap. Preparatory excursions had confirmed that the train would announce its coming. He’d hear the distressed complaining of buffers and couplings as freight cars, in turn, bore the weight of the one behind and reduced speed. He’d remain immobile as the locomotive and the first forty boxcars passed. Then he’d count off the mysterious flatcars with their tarped cargo. As soon as the ninth was level with him, he’d rise, dash to the rail line and board the tenth.
He'd have barely a hundred and twenty seconds to board, find and retrieve the package, and alight from the waggon at the far end of the curve. Only during that window of a hundred and twenty seconds would he be out of sight of the drivers of both front and rear locomotives.
‘Straight-forward,’ Balfour told himself. ‘I took greater risks in Cambodia.’
He set his skis upright behind a pine. From his pack he took a groundsheet and a single bedsheet. He lay on the groundsheet for insulation and pulled the bedsheet over him to better blend in. The sky was grey promising even more fresh snow.
Balfour waited. It might be an hour, or two, three, four.
He could not be aware of the eyes watching from the dark cover of trees on the opposite slope of the mountain.
A screech of steel on steel and the rattle of impacting railcars ripped through the silence. Balfour tensed. Looked at his watch. Barely fourteen minutes in place. The train was early. He’d done well to allow a more generous margin than they’d agreed.
Like a primeval monster belching fire, the lead locomotive appeared, brakes protesting at the enormous load it had to hold in check to take the curve safely.
Balfour began to count. ‘One, two, three, four… The time lapse between boxcars increased abruptly as the brakes of locomotives back and front took effect.
Balfour felt relief. ‘I’ll have a few more seconds than a hundred and twenty.’
‘Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one….’ The boxcars passed.
Then, unexpectedly, the first flatcar appeared. The composition of the train had changed! Fewer boxcars. What other surprises were in store? He felt his pulse heighten. Now shortened safety margin. Increased risk.
The first flat car emerged… the second… third… fourth passed down to his right.
Balfour tensed himself for action. Seventh… eighth… ninth… and! A box car! The last flat car had passed, one short of the usual ten! Now more box cars were appearing.
He flung off his white sheet, rose, and dashed to the rail line. He was losing valuable seconds running to catch the ninth flatcar that had already passed him. His heart beat faster. Valuable seconds lost.
The steel ladder was on the side of the car. As he turned sideways to grasp the uprights, he stumbled and fell onto the sharp stones that formed the railbed. More seconds lost. Ignoring the pain, he rose, ran faster, reached higher and grasped a bar with both hands. His body swung as he hoisted himself off the ground. He dangled dangerously, then pulled with all his might and felt relief as his feet found the lower bar. Secure, he paused to get his breath back, to calm his mind and focus, as he had so often done in Cambodia, and pulled himself up and onto the bed of the car.
He checked the tarp that covered the load. Ropes secured the tarp at intervals but one was a degree looser than the others. There, the tarp flapped just enough to draw his attention.
‘That’s where it is! The agent’s signal for the package.’
Seconds were ticking by.
Balfour crawled to the loose point and bent to reach under the tarp.
Immediately, he recoiled. A man! Here! A small man wrapped in a once-fine but now badly worn overcoat with a black astrakhan collar. He wore a faint smile on his fine, white face. And he was dead.
Death wasn’t new to Balfour. But most of the corpses he’d seen had bled out. Not this one! This body, this man with the smile on his pale, intellectual face had frozen to death. Right here on the flatcar. Hands tucked tightly into the pockets of the once-prized overcoat. The overcoat that had failed in its duty to keep him warm.
Precious seconds were ticking away.
Balfour swallowed his revulsion. Consciously, he forced himself into the mode that had kept him alive in Cambodia. ‘Focus. Time. Mission. Time. Focus, Accomplish. Assess. Track time.’
The first pocket was empty. Except for the frozen hand. He found the small package in the second. Clutched tightly in a hand just as frozen. So tightly that Balfour couldn’t prize it open. Barely thirty seconds left. He looked into the white face bearing the hint of a smile. The kind of face a provincial librarian might possess. The kind of smile that an old man might share with his wife. A smile that expressed comfort and satisfaction for lives lived well, together and without regret. Now, all in the past.
‘The mission. Twenty-five seconds left before I’m exposed to the drivers of one or both locomotives.’
No decision is ever perfect. He knew from experience. Cambodia had taught him that, and a lot more. Balfour made his decision.
Grasping the frozen corpse under both arms, he dragged, lifted, and threw it off the flatcar. As far into the snowbank at the side of the track as he could. It vanished in a puff of white. He leapt after it. The powder swallowed him. He was in a loose, white, dry, cold world. But he could still breathe. He lay as still as the corpse. Hoped that he was invisible. Hoped that the corpse was as invisible as he felt himself to be.
The railbed vibrated. Heavy cars, one by one, passed, protesting. No need to count now. He heard the sudden burst and thrum from the rear locomotive as it powered up to push the train through the end of the curve and then up, up into the next valley. Towards Constanza.
Balfour lay buried. Comfortable. Felt powdered snow melt on his face. He lay till there was nothing more to hear. Silence. And then the cries of a pair of eagles. They’d returned from the south to their annual nesting spot in the Carpathians. Calling to each other in fulfillment. ‘We’re home.’
‘Home,’ thought Balfour. A word much used. A concept treasured. Yet the meaning of it escaped him. ‘Always has. Perhaps always will.’
He lay, listening.
First, he extracted himself from the snowbank and then the smiling corpse. He began to walk back to his original hiding place with an unexpected load on his back and a grave new challenge on his mind.
‘What now? The unforeseen brings dilemmas.’
Bafflement registered in the pair of hazel eyes on the opposite slope. They continued to watch until Balfour was out of sight. The young mind behind the eyes sought to make sense of the past fifteen minutes. But life in Romania had accustomed her to uncertainty. Then Ráhel adjusted the blue headband over her ears and began to ski purposefully back through the pines to the lodge from which she had fled barely an hour earlier, from her mother and friends.