Excerpt from “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

Five

The Crime

He found it difficult to go to sleep again at once. For one thing, he missed the motion of the train. If it was a station outside it was curiously quiet. By contrast, the noises on the train seemed unusually loud. He could hear Ratchett moving about next door – a click as he pulled down the washbasin, the sound of the tap running, a splashing noise, then another click as the basin shut to again.1footsteps passed up the corridor outside, the shuffling footsteps of someone in bedroom slippers.

Hercule Poirot lay awake staring at the ceiling. Why was the station outside so silent? His throat felt dry. He had forgotten to ask for his usual bottle of mineral water. He looked at his watch again. Just after a quarter past one.2He would ring for the conductor and ask him for some mineral water. His finger went out to the bell, but he paused as in the stillness he heard a ting. The man couldn’t answer every bell at once.

Ting…Ting…Ting…

It sounded again and again. Where was the man? Somebody was getting impatient.

Ting…3

Whoever it was was keeping their finger solidly on the push.

Suddenly with a rush, his footsteps echoing up the aisle,4  the man came. He knocked at a door not far from Poirot’s own.

Then came voices – the conductor’s, deferential, apologetic, and a woman’s – insistent and voluble.5

Mrs. Hubbard.

Poirot smiled to himself.

The altercation – if it was one- went on for some time. It’s proportions were ninety per cent of Mrs. Hubbard’s to a soothing ten per cent of the conductor’s. Finally the matter seemed to be adjusted. Poirot heard distinctly:

“bonne Nuit, Madame,” and a closing door.

He pressed his own finger on the bell.

The conductor arrived promptly. He looked hot and worried.

“De l’eau minerale, s’il vous plait.”

Bien, Monsieur.” Perhaps a twinkle in Poirot’s eye led him to unburden himself.

“La Dame Americaine – ”

“Yes?”

He wiped his forehead.

“Imagine to yourself the time I have had with her! She insits – but insists – 6 that there is a man in her compartment! figure to yourself, Monsieur. In a space of this size.” He swept a hand round. “Where would he conceal himself? I argue with her I point out that it is impossible. She insists. She woke up and there was a man there. And how, I ask, did he get out and leave the door bolted behind him? But she will not listen to reason. As though, there were not enough to worry us already. This snow -”

“Snow?”

Preface from The Soloist by Steve Lopez

The Soloist by Steve Lopez

Preface

I’m on foot in downtown Los Angeles7, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That’s when I see him. He’s dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it’s been pulled from a Dumpster.

“That sounded pretty good,” I say when he finishes.

He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion. I see the name Stevie Wonder carved into the face of the violin, along with felt-pen doodles.

“Oh, thank you very much,” he says, obviously flattered2. “Are you serious?”

“I’m not a musician,” I answer. “But yes. It sounded good to me.”

He is black, just beyond fifty, with butterscotch eyes that warm to the compliment. He is standing next to a shopping cart heaped over with all his belongings, and yet despite grubby, soiled clothing, there’s a rumpled elegance about him.3He speaks with a slight regional accent I can’t place. Maybe he’s from the Midwest or up near the Great Lakes, and he seems to have been told to always stand up straight, enunciate, carry himself with pride and respect others.

“I’m trying to get back in shape,” he says. “But I’m going to get back in there, playing better. I just need to keep practicing.”

“So you like Stevie Wonder?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, certainly. ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life.’ ‘My Cherie Amour.’ I guess I shouldn’t have written his name on my violin, though.”

I write a column for the Los Angeles Times. The job is a little like fishing. You go out and drop a line, cast a net. I’m figuring this vagrant violinist is a column. Has to be.4

“I’m in a hurry at the moment,” I tell him, “but I’d like to come back and hear you play again.”

“Oh, all right,” he says, smiling appreciatively but with trepidation. He looks like a man who has learned to trust no one.

“Do you always play in this spot?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says pointing across the street with his bow to Pershing Square5, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. “I like to be near the Beethoven statue for inspiration.”

This guy could turn out to be a rare find in a city of undiscovered gems, fiddling away in the company of Beethoven.6 I would drop everything if I could, and spend a few hours pulling the story out of him, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got another column lined up and not much time to shape it. The deadlines come at you without mercy, even in your dreams.

“I’ll be back,” I say.

He nods indifferently.

Back at the office I seat out another column, scan the mail and clear the answering machine. I make a note on the yellow legal pad where I keep a list of possibilities.

Violin Man.

It’s got potential. Who knows where it will go?