DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN PRINCE OF TENNIS. NOT NOW, NOT EVER.
The Night Train
"It's gonna take you 'way, just don't get on that Night Train…"
The sing-song voice echoed along the tiled walls of the near-deserted Underground station. The voice was that of one of the homeless who sometimes squatted the benches here. At least he looked like one. He was gently rocking backwards and forwards as he wailed.
Fuji slipped his arms round Ryoma's shoulders and moved him further along the chewing-gun speckled platform. Ryoma gripped Fuji's wrist more tightly. Usually when Fuji had to accompany him somewhere, they took the bus, but today the traffic above was beyond chaotic, and that was before anyone took into account the changes of bus needed to get us across town.
As they walked away Fuji heard for the last time what the guy on the bench was murmuring: "Whatever you do, stay off of that Night Train…"
For years afterwards those words haunted Fuji whenever he waited, late at night, on an empty platform. Their simple evocative power sent shivers up his spine, and goose pimples prickled on his arms. That is, until the night when Fuji found himself running along the corridor to the platform.
The buzzer sounded. The doors were about to close. The posters and stickers all over the place said you were not supposed to get on the train in that case. Wait for the next one, they said. Except that this was fine during the rush hours when trains rolled in every few minutes. But late at night, anyone could easily wait for a quarter of an hour, sometimes longer.
Fuji sprinted forwards, and then leapt, propelling myself inside, the jaws just closing on his heel.
He picked himself up as the doors clicked shut.
The train lurched forwards and he grabbed hold as he nearly fell again. The black hole of the tunnel enveloped him.
Before Fuji even had time to sit down the door at the end of the compartment opened with a rattle and a bang. A man in a rather scruffy dark blue uniform dotted with brass buttons and badges entered. For a moment, the sound of the wheels clacking over the rails filled the air. Then he slammed the door, locking it with some device at the end of a chain that he pocketed before turning to the other passengers.
"Tickets, please!" he called, over the muted rumblings and clankings of the train. "Hurry up please, I haven't got all night!" he added, rather brusquely.
This was curious on a number of points: not only did these doors only serve in emergencies — it was written on the notice that Fuji had read many a time during particularly boring journeys — but he had never seen a Ticket Inspector use it. Also, they tended to operate in groups and get on from the platforms.
The passengers in the carriage reached into pockets and bags, and started holding things up and waving them. But again, these didn't look like tickets: one old man was held up a book; a couple were holding a sheaf of papers. Fuji saw what looked like a chewing gum wrapper, and a business card too.
The Inspector walked down the aisle towards Fuji, looking and nodding at the disparate collection of papers and objects.
Suddenly he pounced on a young man about Fuji's age, and pulled him up by his ear.
"Ha!" he exclaimed. "Thought I wouldn't notice did you?"
The man looked sickly and ill at ease as he writhed in the Inspector's grip. His shifty dark eyes seemed to be scanning the other passengers, trying to catch someone else's eyes and summon help.
Quickly Fuji looked away, wishing he had brought a book, or one of the free newspapers that were always lying around.
The man fell to his knees as the Inspector tightened his hold.
"Control! Hello!" the Inspector said to some sort of radio that crackled and hissed as he held it up to his face. "I've caught one! Come in Control!" The radio just hissed as he shook it. "Damn gadgets! Always breaking down when you need them," he said to no-one in particular.
He pocketed the radio, and one-handedly tapped his pockets.
"Don't you even think of giving me any more trouble!" he said to the man squirming at his knees. "Ah, here we are!"
He swung the man around, and Fuji saw him handcuffing a wrist to one of the rails along the back of a chair. As he did this, his eyes swept over the carriage like a beacon. Fuji inspected the marks left by chewing gum on the floor.
"There now, we'll deal with you in our own good time." Fuji heard him say. "Now, where were we?"
He continued shuffling up the aisle, inspecting the various bills and papers people thrust in his direction.
"Tickets please," he chirped, now standing opposite me.
Fuji showed him his pass.
"Oh! Is that all you got?" he asked.
Fuji looked up, not a little surprised at the question.
He had a wrinkled ruddy face, but there were beads of sweat around his eyes and forehead, perhaps from his earlier efforts.
Fuji saw tufts of white air sticking out from under his cap. He looked altogether too old for the job.
"Yes, I'm speaking to you…" he said with a note of impatience in his voice.
"Er… Yes," was all Fuji managed to say, keeping an eye on his hands in case he made a grab for his ear.
"What's the matter? My pass is up to date and everything. I mean, it got me through the turnstile with no problems."
"You haven't got… you know, something else?"
He was looking me up and down, and Fuji could feel the eyes of the others all staring in his direction.
"You mean like ID or something?"
Fuji tapped my pockets, but he didn't think he had anything useful on him.
"No, not really…" he said. "I fear you may have got on the wrong train."
"But this is—"
"The Night Train, they call it." And he pushed his hat back on his head. "And I've got a wee problem, and the radio's on the blink. Oh well, it never rains but it pours."
Nobody said anything. The train sped through the tunnel splashing light on the walls. Which was curious as we hadn't yet stopped in the next station.
"Suppose you'd better come with me. We'll go see what Control has to say…"
He set off back up the aisle. Fuji didn't see what else to do except follow.
As they neared the man attached to the handrail, he pulled himself up.
"What about me?" he snarled. "Gonna leave me here? Gonna forget me, are ya?"
The Inspector didn't break his step as he glided round the obstacle.
"Oh, I won't forget you. I'll see with Control about you, too."
As Fuji passed, the train jerked sending him in the man's direction. He grabbed at Fuji's coat with his free hand, pulling Fuji towards him.
"Don't let them take me," he pleaded. "Make sure you come back for me."
"I'm sorry," Fuji said. "I don't really know what's going on myself."
"That's it. Play the innocent. But you'll remember me, when they come for you too."
"We haven't got all night," called the Inspector, standing at the door. "Come along there!"
Fuji pushed myself away from the other's grip. As he did, Fuji caught his look of disgust. He threw himself back on a seat, his cuffed hand sticking up and out in at an uncomfortable angle.
The Inspector was now using the brass instrument to unlock the door. The sound of the wheels on the rails underneath, and the wind from our movement buffeted into the compartment. He was now leaning over and unlocking the door to the next wagon.
Fuji looked down at the empty space below. From time to time sparks flashed from the conducting rail and Fuji had a picture, frozen on his retina, of the gravel down below. The wind tugged. The noise echoing from the walls around was deafening and oppressive.
It wasn't far, just a large step, but Fuji hung back, paralysed, gripping the bar that ran along the edge of the door for dear life.
"Hurry yourself up then!" the Inspector's voice called over the slamming and jarring and shuddering of the train.
Fuji launched myself forwards.
He caught Fuji, and with a laugh — or it could have just been the effort — helped him up. Shaking, Fuji gripped a support while he busied himself locking the doors.
"Is it far?" Fuji wanted to know.
He looked Fuji up and down.
"Other end of the train… Control is in the driver's cabin."
Fuji looked up the aisle and saw the next compartment snaking ahead. He had only just made it onto the train. In the very last carriage. They had to walk up all the wagons to the front. With the same mad jump between each carriage.
"Can't we just wait for the next stop?" Fuji asked. "Then we can just walk along the platform to the driver..?"
"There's no stopping on this train," he said, pocketing his keys and mopping his face with a large handkerchief. "Not till the end of the line." He set off down the train. "It is the Night Train, after all."
Again, there was nothing left to do but follow.
Eyes turned to us as they moved along the carriage. Fuji noticed that old, grey-haired couples and watery-eyed old ladies seemed to make up most of the passengers. The man now chained to the seat in the previous carriage and, Fuji suppose, myself, really did stick out.
The Inspector opened the doors and we moved through to the next carriage. The jump was still a little unnerving, but nothing like the first one.
"Just what exactly is this Night Train?" Fuji asked as we walked along, catching hold of a rail as the train shuddered and twisted in the curve.
He stopped, turned, and again looked me up and down before answering.
"Look son, if you really don't know, then — truly — this isn't the train for you." He pushed his flat cap back on his head and strands of white hair fell on his forehead. "Had to happen to me, and tonight of all nights…" he muttered.
Suddenly in a scream of metal, we were both thrown to the ground. The train shuddered. Some of the passengers were also thrown off balance, shouting and crying in surprise.
Slowly the pressure and the noise eased off, leaving a powerful hiss that filled the surrounding tunnel.
Shakily, Fuji pulled himself up, then helped the Inspector to his feet. We looked around but no one needed help. The Inspector reached down and picked up his cap, dusting it off before setting it back on his head.
"Everybody all right?" he called. "Nobody hurt?"
The general mutters and comments indicated that, generally, all was in order.
"Well, just stay where you are for the moment," he ordered. "I'm sure Control'll have everything as right as rain in no time."
At that moment the radio in his pocket started crackling and hissing. Above the static we could hear it calling: "This is Control. Come in. Over. Control here. Where are you? Over."
He pulled it out, and pressed a button, silencing the hissing.
"Control? I'm in Wagon Three. What happened? Over."
The answer came in a sea of crackles.
"Someone in Five pulled the emergency alarm. Blocked the train. Over."
The Inspector gave me a penetrating look.
"Had a customer in there. Locked him up. He must have an accomplice. Over."
There was a pause while the radio hissed and crackled, then voice came back.
"Well, we can't leave them loose out here. You'll have to contain them. Do you read me? Contain them. Over."
"Control, I'm on my way. Over and out."
He pocketed the radio.
"Looks like I'm going to need some help," he said. "I'll go along the tracks while you go back the way we came."
"Look!" Fuji said, lifting my hands to keep him away. "I still don't know what's going on, and now you expect me to jump in and catch some I-don't-know-what. I don't even know why you treated him like that. Perhaps you're going to do the same to me…"
"Listen Fuji," he said — he must have seen my name on my pass. "While we're talking there are eighteen innocent souls in that carriage, and I'd hate to think what could happen to them. Either you help or you don't, but I can't waste my time debating here with you."
With that he turned and unclipped the nearest door. With a loud hiss of air, the doors slid to the side before blocking halfway.
"OK!" Fuji called, as he struggled to push them open wider. "I'll help."
The Inspector turned and looked at Fuji.
"You can start by helping me get these open then. Push the other one."
They each pushed a door until they had both slipped to the side, allowing the Inspector to grip the outside rail to lower himself to the gravel below.
"But how do I open the doors?" Fuji called down.
"Ah yes, you'll need this…" he said, unclipping the chain that held the brass key, before passing it up to me.
"And you might need this too…" The Inspector reached into a pocket that ran along his thigh and pulled out a long shiny spike. "If you get a chance, you should stick it to him. But keep it well hidden, until you need it."
It was quite heavy and sharp and looked unbelievably dangerous.
"How do you know I won't attack you with it?" Fuji asked. "I mean, I could be with him…"
He looked up and smiled.
"I know, that's all. And besides, that's solid silver. If you would've been one like him, it'd already have burnt your hand off." He turned to go. "Now get off with you. And don't forget to lock both of the doors after you once you're through."
With that the inspector crunched away along the narrow track that ran along next to the tunnel wall.
Moving between the carriages was much easier now the train wasn't moving. And once Fuji figured out how the curious locks functioned.
As soon as Fuji was through the door, he was assailed with questions: What was happening? Where was the Inspector? Why had we stopped?
Fuji raised his hands for silence.
"There's been a slight problem. The Inspector is down on the tracks checking everything's OK and he asked me to meet him in the last carriage…"
Fuji was glad he managed to reassure without really lying, without creating panic, and without letting on that he didn't actually know much anyway.
"Is everyone all right?" Fuji asked as he progressed the aisle. "Nobody got hurt?"
"We are all fine," said an old man wearing an old-fashioned large-brimmed hat. "A few bumps and bruises but no one is hurt."
An assortment of murmurs confirmed his observation.
"Well, let's keep it like that then," Fuji said. "Stay in your seats. I'm sure everything'll be back to normal real quick."
Fuji had reached the last door and was unlocking it. As it opened, he guessed something was wrong when the smell hit him. Luckily, he was blocking the passage so that no one could see. Fuji locked the carriage door before stepping over the gap to the mess ahead.
Someone had painted the wagon red. And he hadn't done a very good job of it.
No passengers were visible so Fuji crouched down to check below the seats. And immediately regretted it. The stench was stronger here, and pieces of what he took to be the other passengers were scattered in lumps all along the floor under the seats.
Fuji's mind was racing just as fast as his heart was pounding. What on earth could have happened here?
Fuji pulled out the silver spike. Its solid weight in lay hands felt reassuring as, through the open doors further down the carriage, he heard the crunch of feet on gravel.
Fuji was tempted to call out, but how could he be sure it was the Inspector.
Unable to stand the stink of blood, of putrefaction, of other things Fuji didn't even want to think about, he forced himself up, holding onto the back of a seat with him free hand.
It was then, even though Fuji was moving down the train with great care, that Fuji slipped and fell flat on his stomach, knocking the wind from him. Fuji let go of the spike.
He struggled to get up from the slippery pool of liquid on the floor, rolled onto his back and saw… the dark-eyed man lying spread-eagled across the ceiling, just above him.
He was staring right down, straight at Fuji.
Then he let himself fall.
Everything happened so quickly that Fuji still wasn't sure what exactly went on — and to this day, he'd wake up at night gasping and clawing at him, until he realize if it was just a dream.
Fuji scrambled on the slippery, slidy floor, unable to get a grip or move away. But as Fuji was reaching out, trying desperately to find a hold, his hand met the spike. The man pulled it towards Fuji, and he fell straight onto it.
It was deafening, louder than the emergency brakes, and Fuji's whole body shuddered.
At the same time, the man burned. Starting at the point where the silver spike had pierced his body, he burned in a ring of fire that turned him crisp and hard, until he fell away to cinders. And all the while, Fuji writhed and tried to pull himself away.
Fuji opened his eyes to see the Inspector leaning over him.
"Nasty piece of work, that," was all the inspector said, before steadying his feet and lifting Fuji up. The smell of Fuji's singed hair accompanied him as the Inspector helped him to the open doors.
They sat down, their feet dangling over the tracks below. They breathed in the musty air, and Fuji tried to ignore the stink coming from behind.
"What was it?" Fuji asked. "And what's going on?"
The Inspector took off his cap, wiped his eyes and forehead, then blew his nose.
"You're still young," he started. "I suppose you've never asked yourself what happens to all those who die. What happens afterwards, I mean. Traditionally we used to go round with a horse and cart, collect the souls of those who were ready to move on, accompany them like…" He sniffed, the stench from inside was slowly seeping into the tunnel. "Here… Well you can see for yourself. A cart would never do, and so…"
"The Night Train," Fuji said, finishing his sentence.
"But from time to time, it just happens that someone who shouldn't, takes the train…"
"Oh you? You were an accident. But him, he was waiting. They never get through the controls, but… Well, you can see, they can make a pretty mess of things."
"But what about all those people?"
"What can he do to them? They're already dead—"
The inspector span round, the silver spike suddenly piercing the air above Fuji's head. Fuji fell forwards, down onto the tracks. As Fuji looked around he saw another figure, writhing and dancing, being devoured by the growing ring of fire from where the stake had transfixed his body. His scream grated in Fuji's ears and then died as ashes fell about.
"What was that?" Fuji squealed, gripping at the open doors as the cinders crumbled to nothing all around.
"The other one," said the Inspector, reaching in for the spike, and then slipping it back into the pocket on his hip. "How do you think he got out of the cuffs? There had to be two of them. I bet you forgot to close the wagon door when you came through."
Fuji looked down.
"But…" Fuji started.
"Did I know it was there? And coming for you? Of course. You're the only one who's really alive around here. He'd have found you very difficult to resist…"
"A bit cavalier? Yes, you're probably right. But I figured you could manage. And besides, you need to pay for your ticket one way or another—"
"But I've got a ticket!"
"Not for the Night Train you didn't. But I shouldn't worry about that now."
He started to get up.
"Just walk along the tracks here, and round the next bend you'll come to a station. There are steps up to the platform, and something tells me there won't be anyone around to see you when you climb up."
"And that's it? What about the people who were in that carriage?"
"Oh them? They just got to their destination a little bit quicker. No harm done, I assure you." He paused. "And you can give me the key back now. I don't think you'll be needing it anymore."
"So that's goodbye, is it?"
"I hope so. I don't think I'll be seeing you again for a good long time."
A/N: Read and Review. Constructive criticisms are very much welcomed. This was written in the dead of night and may it not haunt your dreams like it did mine. ^_^