A rattle as the train pulled out of Prague Central Station. Catherine Ellam rested her elbow on the windowsill and gazed outside at the surrounding green countryside. Hanging baskets filled with summer flowers hung from light posts. Window boxes filled with cascading red geraniums added a splash of colour. This trip was a milestone. For a decade, she’d written about Peter Henshaw, her crime-fighting hero and Callum Walsh, criminal mastermind. Through a dozen books, they’d battled each other on foot through Paris, a car chase through the hairpin turns of the Alps, a gunfight in London’s crowded Camden Markets, making her reputation and fortune as the world’s top female thriller writer. Now she was ready for her next series of novels with fresh characters. First, she needed inspiration, so she came to the place she’d found it before – on a train; this train.
Looking around the carriage, she studied the passengers. They were ordinary everyday people going about their ordinary everyday lives. The atmosphere was peaceful. What she sought wasn’t here.
She changed carriages, finding an unoccupied compartment.
The mood was more promising, the space buzzing with conversations, tension, and laughter – the emotions she needed to fuel her characters. New people and situations were essential to reenergise her creativity. She would enjoy the excitement of getting to know them, predicting how they would respond. She’d put her characters in situations, which tested their mettle, brought out their best – and their worst.
Her body tingled with anticipation at this next chapter in her life, new discoveries, new places, and she wondered where they would take her.
She relaxed, head against the seat, contented. Her eyes closed and she dozed.
“May I sit here?” asked a male voice.
She opened her eyes, “Certainly,” moving her feet so he wouldn’t stand on them.
“Are you travelling far?” he asked, his accent strong, intriguing.
“To Vienna,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful city, especially in summer. Have you been there before?” The inquiry was polite.
“Yes.” Catherine adjusted her position.
He looked out of the window and she took the opportunity to study him. A handsome man with a strong jaw, clean–shaven. His nose looked as though it might have had some adventures, and his dark hair had a touch of grey at the temples. The beautifully cut Savile Row suit highlighted his muscular body. He exuded a smouldering sensuality she found alluring. His eyes were so deep she thought she’d drown. Eyes that now twinkled as they met hers. She felt the heat rising in her face. Already she could feel ideas racing through her mind. He would do very nicely as the hero in her next thriller series. Or the villain.
“Have you been to the Stephansdom?” he asked. “Into the crypt?”
“Yes.” She remembered the cool underground space, the piles of neatly stacked bones behind metal grilles, caskets, round urns containing the internal organs of the Hapsburgs. The story she’d set in Vienna, that sophisticated, wealthy city – was the first with Peter Henshaw and Callum Walsh had ended in that very crypt. Henshaw, her tough, dedicated hunter, was a man traumatised by loss. Walsh, her villain, was a smooth-talking, mercurial Irishman, responsible for the death of Henshaw’s pregnant wife.
“A beautiful building,” he remarked, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his left upper thigh. The fingers were long, elegant, the nails carefully tended. As he moved his hand slightly, he revealed the misshapen right hand beneath. He raised it from his thigh, expecting her to understand.
Something inside her began to stir.
Chilly fingers touched the back of her neck, her body covered in goosebumps. The compartment was stuffy and she found it difficult to breathe. Clasping her hands tightly together, she spoke. Even to her ears, her voice was strained.
“Have we met before?” she asked, noting a rigidity about him that had escaped her earlier examination and the slight bulge on the right-hand side of his jacket.
His brown eyes as cold as marbles. The look seemed to grab her by the throat. “Are. You. Joking?” he spat out the words.
Catherine’s heart began to race.
“You remember the gate into the crypt?” he pushed his right hand towards her, holding it in front of her face. “I sure as hell do! I can’t ever forget!”
Catherine tensed. No, it wasn’t possible! He was her creation! He couldn’t possibly be real. She delved into her memory trying to find something else that would link her to the man sitting opposite.
“I also remember Zagreb, where Callum nearly killed me with that knife.”
Catherine’s heart pounded. She recognised every wrinkle on his face. Every expression was familiar. Every emotion was known. He was just as he had been written, right down the small scar over his left eye. But it can’t be!
Peter Henshaw adjusted his position, and crossed his ankles, a sign he was thinking. His shoes were polished, laces double knotted.
Catherine wanted to pinch herself, rub her eyes, and make sure she was awake.
“Yes, I’m real,” said Henshaw, and with one well–shod foot, taped her painfully on the shin. There was amusement on his face.
“You can’t be! You exist only in my imagination,” Catherine protested. She wanted to shake her head and make the nightmare stop. She must be awake; the throbbing in her leg was real.
Enjoyment creased Henshaw’s face. “You did a good job.” He remarked and reached out to adjust the cuffs on his shirt. His accent was strong, a mixture of Polish, and Russian. “You’re tired of me? Bored, perhaps,” he remarked. “In spite of the money I’ve made you.”
“It wasn’t you, alone,” she retorted. “What about Callum?”
“Walsh? That bastard bog Irishman?!”
The atmosphere had changed. The other conversations she’d been listening to vanished. She was alone with Peter Henshaw.
“Remember Prague?” Henshaw asked, leaning forward. She could see the flecks of gold in his brown eyes, smell his aftershave, and feel the heat that rose from his body.
The novel set in the beautiful city of Prague had been the location for what she planned to be the last in the series, and where she’d planned to kill her darlings. When it came down to it, she couldn’t. Her fingers refused to type the words. She’d let them both live, the final novel unfinished. Now, Henshaw was demanding answers, and she had none to offer. He leant back, eyes fixed on her face. “Why did you let him kill her?” he asked. His voice was odd, as though a deep inner tension strangled the words as they emerged. She’d never thought of him as emotional, never written him that way. He was always the tough, resilient hunter, focussed, regardless of what she put him through. There was intensity in his expression that was unfamiliar. His face showed grief, pain and maturity making him more complex and more interesting.
“There’ve been lots of women,” she said. “You can’t complain, surely! She was just one more…”
“Yes, lots of women. But there was only one Elanor.”
“That’s why she had to die. Otherwise, there would be no story.”
“There is no story anyway! You haven’t finished it.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
She remembered writing, amazed as Peter and Callum guided her hands over the keyboard, following breathlessly as Callum abducted Elanor. Typing quickly she’d watched Elanor with Walsh as he pushed his way through the crowds of tourists looking out over the dark water of the Vltava. Walsh pulled Elanor roughly when she faltered. Henshaw was a long way behind, still in the middle of the Charles Bridge, frantic to close the distance and rescue the woman he loved.
“Why did you send me up that narrow street?” asked Henshaw, angrily. “What’s it called Nerv something or other? Then those bloody cobblestones. I could have caught them. Got her back, and killed him! Why send them into the church and let him get away?”
Catherine shivered as she recalled the scene. The small building was chilly even in midsummer. Inside an organist played up in the loft. He paused when the doors were flung open, turned, watched for a moment before he resumed practising. Walsh locked the thick front door and pulled a sobbing Elanor through the rear exit leading into an alleyway.
“He shot her!” Henshaw yelled his rage and pain filling the small space. “Why didn’t you let me kill him? Why? I had him in the Palace Gardens. I could have got him there!”
“No!” she said quickly. “That’s not how I planned it would end!”
Henshaw sank into his seat. His shoulders were hunched, brown eyes glittering. She could hear his breathing, shallow, rapid. Eventually he sat upright. “It’s taken me ten years, and a dozen attempts to get that bastard in my sights, and you let him get away. You killed my wife and child! And” —his words ran into each other— “gave me a drinking problem. I hate scotch! Why scotch?! I’d prefer vodka. Let me kill Walsh,” said Henshaw, “or…”
“Or what?” she asked, floundering.
“You want me dead. I’m tiresome now, a block to your brilliant career. Well, it’s why you’re on the train, isn’t it, looking for fresh inspiration?” He inquired, brown eyes fixed on hers. “Let me kill him. Finish the story.” Henshaw said the words crisp, accent strong. He opened his jacket, revealing the bulge to be the butt of a pistol. “Think before you answer, and choose wisely – life, or death.”
Catherine closed her eyes. Her shoulders were tense. She was fearful.
Henshaw watched. “Now you know what it feels like!”
The fear dropped away as she realised he’d given her the solution enabling her to finish the book. And write another. She knew him well. Better than he knew her. She had the power. She was the writer, the creator, the plotter. Elanor wasn’t dead. There would be one last story, pitting the two men against each other, face to face. It would be her best yet.
When she spoke, her authority was clear in the quiet words. “You can’t kill me,” she said. “If you do, you die. Elanor dies. Everyone dies. You’ll be seen as a failure. Seen as the man who let his grief override his professionalism and kill the only person who can give him a second chance. Is that what you want? You’ll be a laughing stock. A character who preferred anger and the bottle to revenge? I’m giving you a choice – another opportunity…” Her mind began to race as it did when she was writing. She could see the story unfold, her excitement began to grow.
There was a long silence, broken only by the rattle of train wheels over the tracks. “But there’s another option. I’ll write you as a broken man, devastated by Elanor’s loss. You’ll put your weapons down, and walk away.”
“Never! Quit, and leave my reputation in tatters? Let Walsh get away with Elanor’s murder!”
Catherine felt Henshaw’s eyes on her. “You have something else to say?” he asked.
“She’s not dead.”
“I saw him kill her!”
“You don’t want to believe everything you see,” she remarked dryly. “I’m seeing this conversation, and I still don’t believe it. No, not another kick in the shin please,” she held up her hand. “I bruise easily.”
“What now?” asked Henshaw, demanding an answer.
“I’ll give you a clue, Elanor is in Poland.”
“You’ll write us all there?”
“Yes. You can reclaim your reputation, and get your revenge. You can finish it between you, in whatever way you choose. I won’t interfere.”
“Okay,” he said without hesitation.
She knew he’d jump at the opportunity. She understood him well. Reaching down she rubbed her sore leg, knowing beneath her jeans there was a darkening bruise. When she looked up, she was alone.
She would finish this novel, and the next. Then there would be space in her imagination for others later. Room for the series she’d planned set in the bush around Whitworth where she’d been born.
Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out her notebook, scribbling quickly. A surge of energy filled her body. The sound of screeching as the brakes were applied and the train slowed, pulling into the station.
Catherine stretched and stepped out onto the platform into the warmth of a summer day.
She had the inspiration she needed.
“So gentlemen,” she said to herself, “let’s make these stories our best. It’s time to get to work.”
The ending was clear. It would be a gripping final chase through the Karkonosze Mountains.
These people were her creations.
She would have the final say.
She alone would decide their fate.
Henshaw would never know she lied.