He was in the club car, scarring his palate with superheated coffee out of a cardboard container and masticating an ancient sandwich advertised as chicken salad on wheat but which managed to taste of absolutely nothing, when a powerfully built middle-aged man came swaying down the aisle, pushing a boy before him. Riley glanced up, though he wasn’t naturally curious, despite his profession. What he knew of people he knew from his early wild years—and from the newspaper and movies, or films as he liked to call them—and that had been enough to get him through 14 novels and counting. He believed in giving people their space, and if he didn’t really have much use for the rest of humanity, that was all right—he led a pretty hermetic existence these days, what with his books, the cats (six of them) and Caroline, Caroline, of course. He liked to say, only half joking, that he resented strangers because they always seemed to be in his way but that he was willing to tolerate them—and here he’d shrug and grin—because, who knew, they might just buy his books.
At any rate, there was something about these two that caught his attention, and it might have had to do with the fact that they were the only other people in the car but for the attendant, a recessive little man of indeterminate age and origin who looked as if he’d rolled over more miles than all the truckers in western New York state combined. Still, they made an odd pair. The man was white, fleshy in the face, with eyes that seized on Riley and then flung him away just as quickly, and the boy—he looked to be eight or nine—was dark-skinned, Hispanic maybe. Or maybe Indian—from India. All this went through Riley’s head in an instant and then he dismissed it and returned to his sandwich and the newspaper he’d spread out on the plastic tabletop, even as the big man and the boy settled into the booth directly behind him.
After a while he felt the booth heave as the man got up and went to the counter to order a coffee for himself and hot chocolate and a sticky bun for the boy. It took no more than a minute or two for the attendant to irradiate the drinks in the microwave and hand over the cellophane packet with the bun smeared inside, but the whole while the big man kept his gaze fixed on Riley, a gaze so steady and unrelenting Riley began to wonder if he somehow knew him. A single jolt of paranoia sizzled through him—could this be the deranged yahoo who’d called up early one morning to say how disgusted he was by Maggie of the Farm because Maggie was such a slut, and go on to wonder, in a pullulating spill of profanity, why that had to be, why every woman in every book and movie and TV show had to be such a fucking slut?—when he realized that the man wasn’t looking at him at all. He was looking beyond him to where the boy sat, as if the boy was a piece of luggage he was afraid somebody was going to dash by and snatch.
Then the man was swaying down the aisle again, this time more gingerly—and dangerously—because he had his hands full, a cardboard cup in each hand and the sticky bun dangling from two fingers in its shrink-wrapped package. Again the booth heaved. There was the faintest rasp as the cardboard containers made contact with the table. The rails clacked. Scenery rushed past the windows. The man said something (Spanish, was he talking in Spanish?) and it was followed by the noise of crinkling cellophane as the treat was unwrapped—whether by the boy or the man, Riley couldn’t say.
All of a sudden he was irritated with himself—what did he care? Since these two had come into the car he’d been stuck on the same paragraph, reading it over and over as if the words had no meaning. Exasperated, he glanced out the window as a lone clapboard house flashed by, then a series of brown rippled fields, then another house and another expanse of field, equally brown and equally rippled. He’d just brought his eyes back to the paper when the man’s voice started up behind him.
“Hello, Lon?” A pause. “I am on the train, yes. Just passing Syracuse. Were you able to place that bet for me? Two hundred, the over-under on the Bills, yes?” The voice was needling, breathy, the vowels elongated and the diction too precise, as if it were being translated, and here it was stuck in Riley’s head. In disgust, he folded up the paper and slid out of the booth, leaving the empty cup and sandwich wrapper for the attendant to deal with. He didn’t glance behind him, though he wanted to give the guy a look—cell phones, God, he hated cell phones. Instead he just brushed imaginary crumbs from the front of his coat and started up the aisle.
“But I just wanted to tell you,” the man’s voice flew up and batted round the ceiling like an asthmatic bird, “don’t wait for me at the Albany station—change of plan. I’m going to be taking a different route.” He pronounced it rowt, but then what would you expect? “Yes, that’s right: I have something I need to dispose of. A package, yes. That’s right, a package.”