Some years ago…
The Simplon-Orient-Express snaked through the grey-green countryside, a cloud of dirty smoke billowing from its tall chimney. The opulent locomotive had departed Istanbul that day and was now steadily travelling north, to Paris.
Alice Ravenwood, her head full of the minutiae of modern machinery, resumed working. Contending with the crushing August heat, she hunched over a makeshift workbench in her cramped sleeping quarters. The focus of her tinkering was a small lantern-shaped box; something she’d been working on for almost six months now. A few turns of the ratchet here, some replacement rubber seals there, and it was starting to look much improved. Nowhere near perfect, but she’d have plenty more time to make adjustments during the holiday.
Alice straightened, then slipped the well-used tools back into the utility belt she wore at her waist. She recalled fondly the moment in which her father had given her those utensils; his proud smile as he slipped the giant leather buckled strap around her middle, only to see it slide to the floor in a heap. ‘You’ll grow into it’, he said, and they both laughed. That very evening she’d taken the belt up to her room and made the necessary alterations, proudly displaying its snug fit at the breakfast table the following morning. Many more modifications had been made over the years, but the tools within remained the same. Solid. Reliable. Made to endure.
Looking into the small mirror above the sink, a woman in her mid-thirties stared back at Alice. Pretty features. Long dark curls tied up messily into a bun. Dark smudges of grease marring otherwise flawless skin. Alice used the back of a sleeve to wipe at her face, halting midway when raised voices outside in the corridor stole her attention.
Opening the compartment door, pounding footsteps retreated down the corridor. Alice was too late to see who they had belonged to; the current bend of the tracks obscuring her view down the train. Another raised voice, this one heavily accented, made her pause.
‘Excusez-moi, mademoiselle!’ an older moustached man called out, his hand raised in greeting. One of the train conductors, she gathered, on account of his crisp blue uniform and gleaming gold buttons.
‘It’s Mrs, actually,’ Alice said, moving out into the aisle, whilst surreptitiously closing the door of her messy compartment behind her.
The conductor peered at Alice curiously.
‘Mrs Alice Ravenwood, if you don’t mind,’ Alice repeated. ‘I didn’t repeat sacred vows within a house of God only to be addressed as mademoiselle, thank you.’
‘A thousand apologies madame,’ the conductor responded hastily, ‘but I must ask you to relocate yourself towards the rear of the train. Tout de suite.’
‘May I be a dreadful bore and ask why?’ Alice frowned, her curiosity piqued.
The man’s evasive eyes darted from side to side, as he smiled nervously. ‘It is – how you say – a matter most délicat.’
‘Go on, I’m listening’.
The conductor huffed. ‘We are currently experiencing technical issues at the front of the train, madame. It is imperative that you please position yourself in one of the rear carriages, post-haste.’
‘Yes, you said that last bit already,’ Alice replied, making no effort to move. ‘What sort of technical issue are we talking about here? You must know, to be shooing passengers to the other end of the train with such bravado.’
The conductor’s cheeks glowed red. ‘The details of our current difficulties have not been shared with the conducting staff, madame. Rest assured…’
The sharp clatter of metal rang out from the next carriage. Before the conductor could open the door to investigate, it burst open, two white-clothed kitchen staff throwing themselves at him. The trio fell to the floor in an awkward struggle of limbs.
Alice backed away, watching as they detached themselves from the conductor and half-ran, half-stumbled further down the corridor, loud profanities echoing. Though the encounter was fleeting, Alice had failed to miss the terror in their faces. It was clear something further up the train had driven those men to flee in terror – but what? Alice fixed the conductor with a matronly stare.
‘I suspect you’re not being completely honest with me,’ she said sternly. The man had seemingly lost all sense of authority in his tussle with the kitchen staff. He picked himself up and straightened his crumpled jacket. ‘If there is something…peculiar occurring on this train,’ she persisted, ‘I may just be able to help’.
The older man sighed heavily. ‘Very well, follow me.’
‘Excellent. Just a minute,’ Alice grinned. She disappeared back into her compartment, emerging a few seconds later holding a medium-sized brown leather travelling case. ‘I feel I have you at a disadvantage, Monsieur…?’
‘Pierre,’ he said, offering his hand to Alice. ‘Head Conductor on the world-famous Simplon-Orient-Express. If that title means anything anymore…’
Alice grasped his outstretched hand. ‘Mrs Alice Ravenwood. Investigator of all things…peculiar.’
The pair hurried past door after door of sleeping berths as they made their way up the train. After dashing through the dining car, they’d reached a simple door at the front of the train, its solid features indicating the point at which sparkling luxury stopped and stark engineering began.
‘This is…er…where it was first seen,’ Pierre said to Alice in a hushed tone.
‘Right, understood,’ she whispered back, knowing better than to ask what it was. In Alice’s line of work, she’d quickly learnt not to rely on civilian accounts. ‘Shall we go in then?’ she prompted him.
The nervous conductor wiped his brow. ‘Oui, of course.’
Pierre slowly slid the door open, his head darting in every direction, like a bird alert for predators. Alice was immediately assaulted by a cacophony of mechanical noises from within. The air in the carriage was chokingly thick. Two filthy boiler-suited men were standing in a small alcove; one, young and terrified, the other, not so young but equally as terrified, though he seemed to be hiding it better.
‘These are the gentlemen that first saw the…ahem…creature’, Pierre announced nervously.
Alice’s eyebrows raised; the it had just been promoted to a creature.
She turned to the older of the two dirt-stained engineers and asked what it was that he’d seen, speaking slowly. He simply stared back at her as if she’d not spoken at all, his vacant eyes occasionally darting in Pierre’s direction for guidance.
‘Answer her!’ Pierre sternly ordered the engineer. It was the younger man that eventually spoke.
‘C’est un monstre!’ he blurted out. As Alice turned on him, the young man clamped his grimy hand to his mouth, as if to prevent further words from tumbling forth.
‘A monster, you say?’ Alice remarked casually. ‘Now that is interesting.’
‘Apologies madame,’ Pierre quickly interjected, shooting the young engineer an annoyed glance. ‘He has quite forgotten himself. The shock…’
‘Not at all,’ Alice said kindly. ‘How about I just take a look myself?’
‘Absolument pas!’ Pierre exclaimed, suddenly reclaiming his earlier protests. ‘It would not be proper for a passenger such as yourself to be exposed to these things.’
‘A passenger such as myself?’ Alice asked, eyebrow cocked.
‘Oui,’ Pierre replied, noticeably avoiding her gaze, ‘a…lady.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Alice said. ‘Well, you needn’t worry. If I suffer a sudden onset of the vapours, I’ll ensure to keep my fragile, unconscious body from blocking the aisle.’ With that parting blow, she made for the next door. ‘This way, is it?’ she asked Pierre wryly, pointing in the direction of the engine. He nodded, either ignoring or completely missing her sarcasm.
The noise from the steam engine was penetrating through to the engineering carriage; a steady rhythm of huffs coupled with a constant thunk-thunk of heavy pistons. Opening the door, Alice was forced to squint as a breath-stealing gust of wind rushed in and slapped at her face. She braced herself and stepped out into the open-topped driver’s cab, forcing the carriage door closed behind her.
Alice briefly inspected the cab interior. The furnace was roaring, providing heat to generate the steam that powered the engine. Confident that nothing appeared awry, Alice briefly peered through the porthole. Something caught her attention. A smooth, dark shape was curled around the chimney; camouflaged against the dull metal, except for an exotic pattern of subtle markings. She leaned out from the open side of the cab to get a clearer look.
She’d definitely seen that sequence of diamond shapes before. The repetition of curved edges that ran the entire length of the spiralling shape; thick at one end and slowly tapering off at the other.
The shape constricted slightly, like a rope tightening around a tree trunk; and it was then that Alice understood what it was she was looking at. An enormous snake, deep in slumber, its thick body tightly wound around the chimney and engine. It had to be at least forty feet long, with a girth to rival that of an oak tree.
The carriage door creaked open behind her and Pierre’s head appeared in the narrow gap, fixing Alice with a curious look.
‘Is everything well, madame?’
‘Quite well, thank you, Pierre,’ Alice replied, dropping her worn leather case onto the floor. ‘We’ve a fare-dodger that needs taking care of, but I’m sure I can handle it.’
Pierre squeezed halfway through the door and followed Alice’s gaze, his eyes widening as they settled on the huge snake. ‘Mon dieu!’ he exclaimed.
‘Yes, it is rather large’ Alice replied casually, opening the case to remove various objects, like a magician revealing her tricks.
She first withdrew a pair of fitted leather gloves. Into the palm of each glove, she attached a round metal disc like a flat compass. The discs were secured in place with leather straps, allowing Alice the continued use of her hands. Set into each disc was a flat glass lens. The next item retrieved from the case was the lantern-shaped box Alice had been working on in her quarters; she hooked it onto her belt, where it clung on snugly. She connected the components together with a series of wires then, with the flick of a switch, the small box at her waist began to hum, bright blue light emanating from the glass front.
‘That’ll do nicely,’ Alice said to herself, moving her arms around to check that everything was securely in place.
‘What are you going to do?’ Pierre asked her, eyeing the equipment with suspicion.
Alice pulled a pair of circular pilot’s goggles overhead, resting them neatly over her eyes.
‘I’ll do what one always does with unwanted guests.’ The large, black, bulging lenses gave her an insect-like appearance as she turned to address Pierre with a lopsided grin. ‘Tell it to sod off.’
Alice hoisted herself out onto the roof of the cab, keeping low to avoid being thrown off-balance by the oncoming rush of wind. She kept a protective arm up as she moved, step by step, slowly up the length of the engine.
Gritting her teeth in stubborn determination, Alice brought her hands down in front of her, palms up. Her index fingers found the subtle triggers that were housed in the metal casing of each palm-lens, and with a little pressure, she activated them.
The small glowing box at Alice’s waist began humming like an angry swarm of bees, the palm-lenses flaring suddenly with bright blue light. Her goggles shielded Alice’s eyes from the powerful glow, but she could still feel the light’s radiance on her face. The burst of blue light lasted only a moment, replaced thereafter by a softer steady glow.
Cautiously approaching the creature, Alice felt that something was amiss. She could still feel the train underfoot, rocking from side to side, but the intensity of its movements had lessened. It appeared, Alice realised with regret, that the train was most certainly slowing down.
Alice considered making her way back to the cab, but it was far too late. The tight knot of scales had begun to unfurl from the chimney and a large pebble-shaped head rose up from amongst the coiled mass. Two glowing green eyes stared out from within a cloud of grey smoke. Alice froze, stunned by the predator’s paralysing glare.
With one end still secured around the chimney, the serpent drew itself up to an impressive height. Its mouth parted to reveal gigantic fangs that glistened with a liquid that Alice severely hoped was neither acidic or venomous. The creature hissed loudly, its eyes glowing eldritch green.
Alice activated the pressure triggers in her palm-lenses. She felt them draw power from the generator at her waist and they flared with an electric-blue light.
The scaly terror gave no warning. It struck with a whip-like speed and ferocity, its huge sleek head darting out at Alice from the fog of smoke. She brought her hands up to act as a shield against the onslaught and the creature plunged headlong into her feeble barrier. At the point of impact, the palm-lenses flashed with a blinding light. The monster recoiled, physically repelled. It reared back, hissing in shock, eyes blazing. The impact of the snake’s attack travelled through Alice’s arms, almost sending her off balance…and off the side of the train.
A device of her own invention, the palm-lenses were designed, amongst other things, to reverse any incoming force. The first time she’d tested them at full power, she’d thrown herself almost two-hundred feet backwards, landing heavily on her basement floor. With a little practice, she’d learnt to tailor the output of force to meet any requirement.
The creature quickly recovered, bobbing its head threateningly, readying itself for another strike. More power was required if she was to wear the foe down. Alice felt for the generator on her belt and adjusted one of the dials. The small box began to hum louder.
As expected, the beast came at Alice again. A vicious strike, straight and deadly as an arrow. With a practised touch of the pressure triggers, Alice diverted the flow of power to her right palm-lens. Dropping to one knee, she delivered a devastating palm thrust to the snake’s open jaw as it lunged. Flaring blue light lit the scene and the creature was thrown back, hissing wildly.
Enraged now, the serpent struck again. Alice had kept a small reserve of power in her left glove, but had only a second to respond. She thrust her left palm up in a protective motion. Once again, the creature butted against the forcefield, recoiling back. Alice felt the blow travel down her arm, pain lancing through her shoulder.
Distracted by the sudden discomfort, a lurch from the steam engine sent Alice toppling off balance. She slid, legs first, over the side, her hands desperately searching for something to cling to, as her own weight carried her down to the tracks.
Not a moment too soon, Alice’s probing fingers brushed something solid. She snatched it, gripping with all her strength the length of pipe in her right hand. Hanging by one arm, Alice looked down to see the ground racing by, close to her feet. The palm-lens began to creak and crack under the force of her grip. She reached up and grabbed the pipe with her other hand, balancing the load.
Seeing Alice clinging to the side of the train, the creature advanced on her slowly, taking its time, eyes glowing green with menace. Alice attempted to heave herself up, her legs swinging to find purchase on even the smallest of surfaces. It was no use; the cylindrical engine provided few areas on which to steady herself.
The monster reared up, jaws open. As it was about to strike, the familiar high-pitched whoop of the train’s whistle pierced Alice’s ears. The serpent halted mid-lunge, its head writhing about in discomfort. Alice looked back up the train and saw Pierre leaning out of the cab, smiling encouragingly. She tried again to heave herself back up onto the engine; this time finding a foothold.
Alice clambered back onto the train and sensed the creature bearing down on her once again. With a practised touch of the pressure trigger in her right glove, she prepared a blinding flash that she hoped would disorientate her attacker. As it darted in, she held up her right palm, expecting a flaring blue light; but nothing came. She was forced to perform a clumsy backwards roll – almost slipping over the side of the train again – as the creature’s jaws snapped shut a hair’s breadth from where she had just been crouching.
Alice glanced at her right palm; the glass lens had cracked and thin black smoke was pouring out from within the metal disc. She cursed her bad luck, but was relieved to find that the other continued to glow brightly. Still, her defensive capability had just been halved. If she was going to beat this monster, she had better think quickly.
Diverting all power to her left glove, Alice readied herself for the next attack. It lunged again in a rapid series of whip-like strikes. Each time it struck, Alice brought her left palm up to deflect the blows, blue light flaring. The small generator clipped to her belt hummed violently, as power was drawn into the lens. She could feel her foe tiring, its attacks becoming less rageful. Alice had begun to tire too, the sudden fall over the side draining much of her own energy.
Taking advantage of a brief pause in the action, she scanned her surroundings. The steam engine could very well provide her with the key to success. Her eyes drifted beyond the train, into the distance at the track ahead. The countryside was rushing towards her, stirring Alice’s stomach into a state of nausea. She found a point on the horizon and focused, willing her brain to ignore the erratic motion underfoot. Then she spotted it in the distance; a possible solution.
A swift calculation of distance, time and measurements gave Alice all the information she required. The creature was curled defensively at the base of the chimney, preparing for another onslaught.
Turning a dial on the generator, and receiving a satisfying hum in response, Alice launched herself into a low run. She let out a battle cry, summoned from deep within. The serpent’s green eyes registered the oncoming threat. It reared up in alarm, puffing its body out to appear as large and menacing as possible, forked tongue flicking out from behind huge fangs. Alice continued her charge and the monster jerked in preparation to meet her assault but, before it could lunge, the train entered the dark mouth of a tunnel.
A solid mass of brickwork smashed into the back of the creature’s head as the train plummeted forward. Propelled by the force of the collision, it’s pointed snout crashed forward into the hard metal body of the steam engine just as Alice reached it, crouching low. The inside of the tunnel was pitch black, only the glow of Alice’s generator single lens provided any light.
Alice wasted no time, activating a second pressure trigger in her left glove and holding the glowing palm to the monster’s motionless head. The generator hummed deeply. Alice kept her hand pressed tightly to the creature until its entire curled mass began to glow blue, a faint aura surrounding it, trapping it in a glowing cocoon.
‘That’s it,’ she muttered to herself in encouragement, ‘come to Alice.’
The beast’s huge body was now fully enrobed in glowing blue light. Sensing movement under her palm, Alice looked down at the serpentine head and was alarmed to discover that both eyes were open. It had begun to wake. She gritted her teeth in determination, keeping her hand pressed firmly down on the creature.
‘Come on, come on…’ she willed the generator to work its magic.
The creature lifted its head from under Alice’s grip. At any second, she thought, it would snatch her up in its jaws and that would be that.
Suddenly, the generator gave off a high-pitched squeal and the huge glowing serpent was transformed into pure blue light. Alice activated a pressure trigger and the entire luminous mass was drawn into the palm-lens like a silk handkerchief being sucked into a vacuum cleaner. She was forced to grip her left wrist with the other hand, as the force of such power threatened to jolt her arm right out of its socket.
With a sudden blinding flash, the mass of light was gone, leaving Alice gasping for breath. The generator was emitting a low rhythmic hum, and it glowed much brighter than before.
Finally, the train shot out from the darkness of the tunnel, daylight flooding over Alice as she lay exhausted on top of the steam engine. Sitting up, she lifted the goggles up onto her forehead and looked out across the rolling countryside.
So much for a relaxing holiday…