It was the month of the ratification of the 19th amendment. Whilst women throughout America were celebrating a resounding success (though most were not allowed to vote until well into 1921), a local New Mexian newspaper reported a tragic story:
Ortecho Family Drama Unfolds: Rosa Ortecho (11) disappears in the dead of night. Police suspect foul play.
The Ortechos were stellar chefs of Mexican descent, moving to New Mexico to open their first US-based restaurant. While the country wasn’t as welcoming to them as they had hoped, the food spoke for itself and soon Ortecho’s Bistro had built a faithful customer base.
Mr. Ortecho ran the restaurant alone, after Mrs. Ortecho was committed to a mental institution, and raised his daughters with the pride and flair worthy of a cook. Their youngest, Liz, was 9 when the drama unfolded. Rosa and Liz shared a bedroom and their sisterly bond was as close as it could be. Liz adored Rosa.
So when she woke up on that faithful night, awoken by a cold draft from a window that had most certainly not been open when Mikey had tucked them in, and she looked over to find Rosa’s bed empty, a part of Liz died on the spot. Screaming, she quickly woke up the entire house, and within a few hours, the entire town was up and looking for Chef Ortecho’s eldest daughter.
Detective Valenti of the local sheriff’s department was put on the case, but the bedroom held no clues other than an open window and the land surrounding the house was large and not easily traversed. It was commonly agreed that the kidnapper could not have gone far.
“After two weeks of silence, Chef Ortecho finally allowed reporters on his property, to appeal to the kidnappers and anyone who has any information on the whereabouts of his daughter. ‘Please,’ Chef Ortecho pleads, desperation clear in his voice, “Please, Rosa and Liz are all I have. If I lose one of them…please, return my daughter, Liz’s sister. She’s just an eleven-year-old girl.’ Afterwards, Chef Ortecho was too overcome with emotion to speak, and Detective Valenti shooed the reporters out of the house.”
Not long after the interview was released, Detective Valenti brought terrible news; the body of Rosa Ortecho was found a few miles from the house, half-buried in a forest. The kidnapping had become a murder.
The Ortecho family was wrecked. The restaurant closed indefinitely and Chef Ortecho and his only remaining daughter were barely seen in public.
Detective Valenti stayed on the case as long as he could. He had solved all cases that came before, even if they were deemed ‘unsolvable’ and was driven to solve this one. But the longer he went on, the colder the trail got. Several suspects were named, but none had clear motives, and all had believable alibis.
The case grew cold.
Present day, 19th of October, 1935
Alex Manes shook hands with the Police Captain of Istanbul’s biggest precinct. He had just assisted in solving a very complicated theft and the thief was now safely behind bars. This is what he loved about his job; he got to travel to all kinds of places to help people.
“Teşekkürler, Mr Manes. We could not have solved this case without you,” the captain said.
Alex smiled. “You had all the facts already, all that was needed was to put them together. The world is built on logic, one just needs to learn to see it.”
The captain shook his head with a smile. “As you say, Mr Manes.” The two of them stepped outside, into the warm autumn air. The city was bustling with people, the air filled with delicious smells of spices and coffee. “Will you be enjoying our grand city, Mr Manes? The Haga Sofia is open for tourists now.” The captain couldn’t withhold a small hint of disapproval at the city’s decision to turn the greatest mosque into a museum.
Alex shook his head, shrugging on his coat and putting on his cowboy hat, the only thing he kept from his childhood years. “No. There’s a case waiting in New York. I’m planning on traveling to London tonight, so I can be in New York in time for Thanksgiving.”
“If I may be so bold, take the Orient Express,” the captain said, his face lighting up. “The wife and I saved up enough money a few years ago, and we went by Orient Express to Paris. The ride is beautiful.”
Alex looked the captain up and down, noting the crooked tie and the dishevelled hair. The captain was busy and criminally underpaid, yet he seemed like a decent fellow. “I thank you, Captain.” He held out his hand again.
“And I, you, Captain.”
“Just Mr Manes now, I’m afraid,” Alex corrected. He straightened his hat and began to walk towards his hotel, enjoying the walk in the early autumn sun and a city in bloom. If his father knew he was in Turkish country, he would not hesitate to call Alex a traitor. But Alex wasn’t in America anymore, and neither was he in the Army. His father had no control over his life anymore, and Alex preferred it this way. Jesse Manes’ racist and discriminatory lifestyle was not something Alex wanted anything to do with.
At the hotel, he tightly packed his suitcase and took a taxicab to the train station. A line was forming at the Bucharest ticket booth, but the Paris ticket booth was line-free. Alex walked right up. “Good afternoon. I was wondering if there were any tickets left for the 10.31 to Paris?”
The man looked up and they both did a double take. “Alex?”
“Flint?” Alex stared open-mouthed at his older brother, who was in full Orient Express costume, looking extremely bored. Flint and Alex hadn’t gotten along in their youth, but when they were both in the Army, they rekindled some of their brotherly bond. After Alex was honourably discharged, they lost touch.
“Little brother!” Flint boomed, making several passengers look around in surprise. He jumped up and pulled Alex into a bone-crushing hug. “It’s been a while, what you been up to?”
Alex chuckled and patted his brother’s back. While he had grown fond of Flint in their three years on the force together, it was still uncomfortable to be greeted this way. Flint had been the worst bully of all his brothers. “Oh, you know, solving some cases, travelling the world. How about you?”
“Been working here for a year now. Father is the new director of the Compagnie.”
Alex scoffed. “The French must love that.”
“It wasn’t the most popular decision, no. But you know Father, once he sets his mind to something, he gets it.” Flint rolled his eyes, and Alex felt a strange sort of warmth. He had always been the only one to be at odds with their father, and it was strange to share this with his brother. “Anyway, after I was discharged, I really needed a job and he landed me this one. The work is boring but living in Istanbul is a dream. Did you know they opened the Haga Sofia to the public now? It’s stunning.”
“Yes, I did, but sadly, I did not have time. And I have to return to New York before Thanksgiving. So, can you get me a ticket to Paris?”
Flint clicked his tongue, looking remorseful. “Sorry, Alex, everything was fully booked weeks ago. But if you really need to go to Paris, I can put you on the Belgrade car. There’s a direct line to Paris from Belgrade as well, on the Arlberg-Orient Express, and the transfer is only a couple of hours.”
Alex sighed, but took out his check book. “Well, I could complain, but what would that help?”
“Tell that to all the passengers to whom I had to deliver the same message.” The two brothers laughed as Alex wrote out the check. “Here’s your ticket, little brother. Don’t lose it, or they’ll toss you out halfway to Sofia. Even if you’re the boss’s son.”
“I think being Alex Manes makes me more likely to be tossed out, but I’ll keep it safe, nonetheless. Thanks, Flint. It was good seeing you.”
“Same to you, man. If you’re ever in Istanbul again, don’t hesitate to visit.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. See you around!” Alex took up his suitcase and carried it over to the Belgrade carriage. He worked his way through a crowd of people, all of them were ready to board the Paris carriage. A young, dark woman was supporting a middle-aged, frail-looking woman who could only be her mother. A blonde, high society woman was ordering her and her husband’s suitcases to be brought on the train. Alex almost tripped over a man who was tying his shoelace. “Oh, excuse me,” Alex said, side-stepping the man. A white coat was hanging over his arm. A doctor, Alex deduced easily, then moved on.
A man helped Alex haul his suitcase on the train and find his cabin. It was a single cabin, and Alex exhaled. Sharing a cabin was murder on his senses, which were always in overtaxed at the end of the day, and there was nothing better than reading a good book to wind down, with no distractions. “Thank you, kind sir,” Alex said, giving the man a generous tip. The case in Istanbul had paid very well.
“The dining carriage is that way, just pass through the Paris carriage and you will find it there. Breakfast is served at 8.30am, lunch at noon, tea at 4pm and dinner at 7. Should you need anything else, you can ring this bell and the conductor will be right with you.”
“Is there one conductor for the whole train?” Alex asked, incredulously. That seemed too much work for one man, as several carriages would be added in Venice and Lausanne.
The man laughed. “Certainly not, sir. Every carriage has its own conductor, who has a small cabin at the end of each carriages. At night, the doors between carriages will be closed for safety reasons, but everyone still has a right to call upon the conductor at all times.”
“That’s excellent, thank you very much. Enjoy your day.”
“You as well, sir.”
The man closed the door behind him, and Alex sank into his bunk with a heavy sigh. His leg was aching. He swore. He’d been walking around too much on it and the scar near his knee was acting up heavily. Alex stretched his leg with a groan, just as the whistle outside sounded and the train shocked into movement.
Alex looked out the window as the pulled out the train station. Istanbul had been nice, but after the chaos of the city, Alex was looking forward to a restful week on the train. He needed to recharge before his major case in New York.
He watched the city centre turn into the less populated outer cities and then into wide open nature. With another groan, he opened his trunk and took out his book. It had been locked in his trunk ever since he arrived, and now he finally had the time to read the newest murder mystery.
Just as Alex had gotten emerged in the story, a knock sounded, startling him. He blinked, reorienting himself, then said, “Come in!”
The door slid open and a man in a conductor’s uniform stepped in. “I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but a cabin in the Paris carriage just became available and my boss has off – ” Alex froze as he looked up at the man, and their eyes met. “Alex?” The way his name rolled of the conductor’s tongue catapulted Alex straight into his teenage years, and his heart soared and sank all at once.
The silence stretched between them for a full minute, both of them staring, the echoes of years long past the only thing that made any noise. Finally, Michael blinked and cleared his throat, “As I was saying, my boss has offered you the empty cabin. Now I know why.” The bitterness in Michael’s voice made Alex feel like he’d been slapped in the face.
“Michael, I – ”
“If you’ll follow me. Sir.” Michael turned on his heels sharply and walked out, leaving Alex to struggle to his feet, pick up his trunk and drag it along with him to the next carriage. Michael’s silence was icy, leaving Alex feeling uncomfortable the entire trip. Michael stopped in front of a cabin roughly in the middle of the carriage, opening the door with a bang and standing aside. “Your cabin, Mr Manes.” Michael never looked at him once. “Courtesy of Master Sergeant Manes.” He turned to leave.
“Michael, wait.” Alex dropped his suitcase and grabbed Michael’s arm. Michael froze, but didn’t turn back. “I haven’t seen or talked to my father for two years.”
Michael scoffed. “I don’t care anymore, Alex. You enjoy your trip.”
Alex recoiled as if Michael had slapped him. Speechless and with a constricted throat, he watched Michael walk to the dining carriage and disappear. Feeling his eyes burn, he blinked rapidly and turned to enter his new cabin. He was stopped short when he heard an all-too-familiar voice. “Alex.”
Alex was once again catapulted into a past, but this time not a past he’d care to remember. He squared his shoulders, snapped all his walls in place and turned around. “Father.”
“Flint said there was a guest wanting to go to Paris on the Belgrade carriage. I did not realize it was you.” Master Sergeant – no, Compagnie director Manes looked as disapproving and strict as ever. Alex hated looking at his face more than anything else.
“Guess he wanted to spare you,” Alex said curtly. Then, as to not be discourteous, “Thank you for offering the cabin to me.”
Jesse Manes simply made a non-committal sound. “Are you still solving other people’s problems for them?”
“A private investigator, you mean?” His father had never approved of his career choice, but then again, he’d also been disappointed when Alex was medically discharged after only three years. “Yes, I am. I just helped solve a major case in Istanbul. Not that you’d be impressed, it didn’t involve actively trying to kill someone.” In the old days, a comment like that would’ve resulted in a vicious beating. But Alex was a grown man now, with several years of combat training under his belt, so all Jesse Manes could do was ball his fists and grit his teeth.
“Welcome aboard my train, Alexander.” Director Manes turned on his heel and left the carriage. The door next to his cabin opened, and the blonde woman from the platform stuck her head out the door.
“Is everything alright out here?” She had an American accent.
Alex managed a smile. “Of course, ma’am. I’m sorry if I disturbed you, I keep running into old friends.”
“A fellow American! A pleasure. My name is Isobel Bracken, and this here is my husband.” A dark-haired man wrapped an arm around her shoulder and she smiled at him with affection.
“Noah Bracken, a pleasure to meet you.”
“Manes. Alex Manes.” The two men shook hands. Alex felt an unexplainable shiver run up his spine, so fast that he might have imagined it, when he looked into Mr Bracken’s eyes. Alex couldn’t put his finger on the feeling, but he felt his guard raise slightly.
“The private detective?” Isobel straightened, an expression on her face Alex found difficult to read. “I read about the case you solved recently in Algiers. Unbelievable, how such a tiny detail can solve such a major case. Impressive!”
Alex smiled indulgently. He didn’t much care for the fame his work brought him, he enjoyed flying under the radar, and people recognizing his name would only make his work harder in the long run. “Thank you, Mrs Bracken. If you’ll excuse me, I was just relocated to this cabin and I’d like to unpack.”
Mr Bracken nodded and went back inside, but Isobel lingered a single moment longer, frowning. “I was told a Miss Cameron would be in the adjoining cabin.”
Alex shrugged, his mind already wandering. “I guess she never showed up. Good afternoon.” He went inside his cabin, unpacked properly this time and sat on his bed, staring out the window. Running into Michael on a train he never even planned on taking before earlier today had rattled him in a way he never expected.
It had been ten years since Alex had seen Michael. A lot had happened since then. He’d built up a new life for himself, a life that didn’t include Michael, and while it had hurt more than he could possibly say to make that choice, Alex thought he’d gotten over Michael.