by Rayne Hall
Shelley squeezed herself and her damp rucksack through the door of the Intercity train that would take her away from rainy Switzerland. The air in the corridor tasted as stale as last week’s bread.
Not having reserved a seat, she peeked into every compartment to find a vacant space. Most were full; in others, the occupants didn’t look like people with whom she wanted to spend the night. A family with screaming toddlers and whiny babies, a couple quarrelling noisily, a pair of silent but drink-smelling men.
A group of young soldiers, handsome in blue uniforms, called out to her in Italian which she didn’t understand except for ‘Ciao’ and ‘Bella’, and gesticulated to invite her in. She was tempted, since a bit of flirtation would liven up the journey. But caution warned her against a night with five testosterone-laden males in the darkened, locked compartment of a sleeping car. The people behind the next door looked better. A grey-haired lady with wrinkled cheeks, a couple, and a girl reading a picture book.
“Do you have a vacant seat in here?” Shelley asked first in English, then in German. “Ist hier ein Platz frei?”
All four of them looked her up and down, as if they were trying to guess her measurements. She tried in Italian, but they kept staring.
Shelley almost decided to give the soldiers a try after all, when at last, the old woman nodded. The man pointed, said something in Italian, and gestured to the vacant seat by the door.
Relieved to have passed their inspection, Shelley smiled politely, then stuffed her big rucksack into the already overflowing luggage space above the doorway. Keeping her small leather bag at hand, she settled down to write postcards to the people at home in Dublin. She didn’t get far.
The sliding door slammed open. “Jemand zugestiegen?” the blue-uniformed conductor queried. A red-headed giant, he had to duck under the door frame to get in.
“Ah, yes, I’m new. You want my ticket?” “And your passport, please, miss.”
His gaze travelled from her dark blonde hair over her slender torso down to her denim-clad legs, and up again. A smile lit his face. After flipping through the documents, he pushed them into his worn black shoulder bag and addressed her in broken English.
“You receive them back when the customs officers them have controlled. This is so I need not wake up passengers for the passport control. You are Irish. Is it your first time in Switzerland?”
“Yes. I’m travelling all over Europe this summer. There’s too much rain in Switzerland, so I’m heading south.”
“Carry no valuables at the body and let no strangers in the compartment.” His Swiss accent gave his consonants a scratchy quality. “Turn the lock, and push the bolt.”
“Robbers? Are you saying there might be robbers on the train?” This was a danger she hadn’t foreseen.
“Robbers – yes,” he said gravely, rubbing his red moustache. “And vampires.”
But the Italians nodded emphatically. “Vampires.” They pronounced it vumm-pee-ress. The mother held up the crucifix pendant dangling on her chest. They obviously knew – and they believed.
“It is a frequent problem in the winter,” the conductor said. “In the summer and autumn, they find many mountain climbers in the Alps, but in the winter they attack the trains. They have been around the St Gotthard for centuries. Millennia, even.”
A cold shiver went through Shelley. She recalled a news article a couple of years ago, when the dried, mummy-like remains of an ice-age man were found. He had died from blood-loss and had puncture wounds at his neck. Similar wounds were discovered on a corpse from the late Iron Age. And every year, people who went mountaineering in the Swiss Alps were found dead with punctured necks.
She swallowed. “I thought the trains were safe.”
“Officially, yes. This warning is not official. I just tell everyone that if they want to be safe then they don’t sleep. I do not want passengers to suffer. Especially not pretty girls on holiday.”
Babbling something in Italian, the woman waved her crucifix at her.
“I don’t have one of those. But maybe these will help.” Shelley opened the pack of sliced garlic bread and offered it to her companions.
The man sniffed. “Ah. Aglio.” He helped himself to a piece, and gave one each to his wife and daughter.
Shelley took one herself, then offered the remaining slice to the conductor, who waved it off with a tired smile.
“They help not. If the vampires are really after you, the garlic or crucifixes will not keep them away. Holy water or all the other gadgets you read about also will not help. The vampires pick persons who are foolish and let them into their compartment or go into theirs. But if garlic makes you feel safe it harms not.”
He added that, come morning, they’d know if vampires had selected this train. If a white-drained victim was discovered, they’d also see who had disappeared out of the window. They normally hunted in pairs, or in groups of three to five, and usually one victim was enough to feed them all.
She curled her lips around her teeth. This wasn’t the kind of adventure she’d anticipated on a backpacking holiday. “Do you know what they look like?”
“Never the same faces twice. They take the form on of people whose passports they steal during the day. Do not let strangers into your compartment. I will be back in a half hour.” With these words, he left.
She cast a cautious glance over the family. They didn’t look like vampires.
Next door, Shelley heard the Italian soldiers laughing.
Shivers crawled up her back like spiders. Spending another week under rain-filled Swiss skies suddenly seemed not so bad. It was getting late, but if she disembarked at the next station, she might still secure a bed in a cheap hotel.
When the red-haired conductor returned half an hour later to make up the berths, she had made up her mind to get out. “What will be the next stop?” she asked him.
“Rome. Tomorrow morning, nine thirty-nine.”
So much for her plans to escape.
The conductor snapped the seats’ backs and headrests into a horizontal position and hooked them with straps. “Gute Nacht. Buona notte. Good night, miss.”
The compartment had been transformed into a walk-in cupboard with six built-in beds, three on either side, and not enough space for everyone to stand in the middle. Already she felt like she was running out of air.
Hurriedly, she climbed up the wobbly ladder to her bookshelf-sized space under the ceiling. She wiggled into the white sack provided, a kind of sleeping bag made from a sheet, similar to body bags she’d seen on television. A thin, scratchy blanket covered her torso but didn’t reach to the feet.
She tried to talk her travelling companions into waking shifts, to ensure that one of them would be alert and ready to repel intruders. But her language skills didn’t suffice, and besides, the Italians seemed to put their trust in crucifixes.
The night dragged on. Rain drummed on the roof. Next door, the soldiers were still laughing loudly. Unsleeping, Shelley lay and listened to the thunk-whunk, thunk-whunk, thunk-whunk of the wheels.
The child on the berth opposite Shelley lay still with her mouth wide open. The way she stared at the ceiling was disquieting. Further down, the man had the blanket wrapped tightly around him. His breath whistled. On the bottom bunk, the old woman gurgled a snore. It felt awkward, sharing the intimacy of night rest with total strangers.
And what if they were vampires?
Shelley lay like paralysed. She could hear her pulse in her temples, and the air rushing in her head.
Then she struggled out of the sheet sack. As quietly as she could, she slipped out of her berth. Sliding the door shut behind her, she sneaked out into the narrow corridor, and stared through the big window into the looming dark.
Rain hammered on the roof and tapped the window. Rat-tat, tat-tat-tat. Tick-tap-tap-tap.
All she could do was wait for this night to pass. Eventually, the train would reach Italy, and with it safety and sunshine.
The door at the end of the corridor clanked open. Shelley shrank. To her relief, she recognized the Swiss conductor’s tall frame and dark uniform.
“You should not be alone,” he remarked. “You make an easy target.”
Should she voice her worry that the family might be vampires?
“I can’t sleep,” she said instead. “I’m not used to sharing. And I’m nervous about what you told me.”
He nodded with understanding. “I will stay with you a while. This is a boring part of the journey. The passport checks are completed.”
He showed her how to open the tiny folding seats built into the outer wall. Hers squeaked when she sat.
“By the way, my name is Beat.” He pronounced it Bayaht. A Swiss-German name.
She pointed to the neighbouring compartment, where the soldiers were silent at last. Plaits of garlic dangled from their door, giving off a faint odour.
“They’re heavily hung,” she joked, but he didn’t get the English phrase.
“Why isn’t this more known, about the vampires?” she asked. “I’m not sure I’d have taken a night train if I’d known.”
“Oh, most people who use the trains know well about them and bring their garlic and things they think will protect them.” He lifted his cap with one hand and scratched his red-headed scalp with the other. “It is cheaper to drive with the night train than over the day and also it saves the cost of a hotel for one night.”
“Railway companies don’t advertise this modern problem, just as they did not talk much about the train robberies. Bad for business. I lose my job if they hear me talking about this.”
“I hadn’t even heard about the robberies,” Shelley admitted.
He studied her. “You were then too young. It was in the Eighties and Nineties. Almost every train driving through the St Gotthard and the St Bernhard tunnels was robbed. Now it is only one train a night, and one victim.”
Her sarcasm was lost on him. “The criminals used to squirt a puff of sleep spray into the compartments, and then plunder the passengers. Did this stop people from travelling? No. It didn’t even stop them to carry lots of cash and brag about it to fellow travellers. They treated it as an adventure, each boasting their methods how to foil the thieves. Money belts around their bellies, personal alarms, that kind of thing, just like now they carry garlic and crucifixes.”
“And maybe some don’t believe in vampires.”
“This is true. Some prefer to treat it as a joke. They think anything to do with vampires is superstition, regardless of scientific evidence. But I’ve seen what the vampires do.”
“In the train?” Shelley was horrified.
“Yes. And also, when I was a child, in the mountains. I was on a hiking tour with my father, and one night…” His eyes went into the distance. “I was the one who found her outside our camp. Her throat had bites all over, with pieces of skin ripped off…”
“Please. Let’s talk about something else.” Shelley didn’t want to hear the gruesome bits. She preferred the light flirtations. “What do you normally do on this part of the journey, Beat?”
But Beat went on. “It was a sight no child should see. On her neck, pale flesh exposed…”
In the cold light of the overhead lamp, he looked deathly pale. His eyes held a glassy gleam, as if the subject fascinated him to the level of a trance. For the first time, she noticed how long his moustache was, almost covering his lips. What else did it cover? Teeth? Or – fangs?
He had refused her garlic bread.
Shelley’s throat constricted, making it difficult to swallow. Under his intense gaze, her instincts screamed, but her body refused to move.
With a shrill whistle, the train shot into the tunnel. The mountain’s mass closed around them, imprisoning them all in the train. All at once, the hammering of the rain stopped. Even the soldiers behind the garlic-guarded door had ceased laughing. Only silence remained.
No one else was in sight. She stared, frozen with fear, at the conductor, who suddenly seemed twice her size.
At last, her limbs obeyed, and she jumped up. The seat creaked and snapped back into the wall.
“Sorry, Beat, I have to go now.” She avoided his eyes. “I’m getting tired.”
“Please don’t go, Shelley. I enjoy your company, Shelley.”
The way he sang her name made her skin crawl. “My job is lonely at this time in the night. I am alone and this makes me nervous, Shelley.”
“Good night.” She slammed the compartment door shut and bolted it behind her.
Now she was back with the group from whom she’d sought to escape in the first place. Was she being paranoid? The man’s breath still whistled, the old woman’s gargled, and the girl stared open-mouthed at the ceiling. Rain tapped the roof again.
After a long time, she heard a knock on the door. She ignored it.
“Shelley,” the voice whispered. “Shelley, I’m it, Beat, the conductor. Please, let me in.”
Her skin prickled from scalp to toe. She almost didn’t breathe. Did nobody else hear him?
“Shelley, it is important. Open the door, quick. Shelley, quick!” he whined. “The vampires are in this carriage, and I am feared.”
Shelley pretended to sleep, not to hear. She wasn’t going to let a suspected vampire in.
None of Shelley’s companions stirred. The old woman no longer snored.
In the hot, still darkness, she could almost hear the sweat as it rolled down her face.
Her pursuer had not given up. She heard him trying the door.
Not trusting the small bolt, she slid out of her berth and dragged her big rucksack down as a further barricade.
The door rattled once more. Then there was a sigh, and silence.
Shelley just lay awake, hour after hour. At last bits of daylight peered through the nicotine-coloured plastic blinds. They were out of the tunnel. Safe.
Just then she heard a scream from the corridor. “Mord! Polizei!” then more voices.
The Italians crossed themselves but didn’t get up. Shelley jumped down, tossed the rucksack onto her berth, and slammed the door open.
At her feet lay a body. A large body. A dead one. Adult. Uniformed. A cap on the floor.
Shock and remorse stirred her stomach.
“Beat!” she cried, pushing bystanders aside.
She dropped to her knees and searched for his pulse on his wrist with shaking hands, but knew she would not find one.
Instead, she saw first the drops of blood on his white uniform collar, then the pieces of skin torn from his throat, pale flesh underneath.
Above him the plaits of garlic bulbs still dangled, some of them crushed by the sliding door. Their stink filled the corridor.
The soldier’s compartment was empty, and the window gaped wide open.
This story has been previously published in NocturnalOoze.
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