Sunday, August 31, 2008

Powder Burn Flash #101 - James C. Clar


The moment Paul Blaine boarded the train in Delhi he felt an enormous sense of relief. No, that wasn’t quite accurate; it was more like elation. In fact, as they pulled out of the station he was ecstatic, almost giddy. Fifteen years in this wretched country as a mid-level colonial bureaucrat and he was finally going home. As far as he was able to size up the situation it was just in time too. He gave it maybe five more years, probably less, before the blighters were granted independence. And after that, well, he reckoned there would be chaos within a fortnight. Anyone who thought that these people could govern themselves was a bloody idiot. But, so far as he was concerned, it would be good riddance to bad rubbish. Not even the thought of the forty-eight-hour journey to Bombay or the long voyage from there to England by sea could dampen his spirits. He was on his way home and that’s all that mattered. Besides, if all went according to plan, he wouldn’t be sober long enough to remember much of the trip anyway.

Later that evening, Blaine entered the dining car. He was pleased to see the usual small army of liveried waiters bustling to and fro. There were linen napkins, heavy silver cutlery and crystal stemware on the tables, of course. The sun might be setting on the empire but damned if his people didn’t still know how to run a railway. There was no reason whatsoever why one shouldn’t continue to travel in comfort. He ordered a bottle of wine and the beef curry. There was precious little that he fancied more than a good curry. For his money it was the subcontinent’s only contribution to civilization. He understood from his various correspondents back home that there was plenty of good Indian food to be found in London these days. He’d be the judge of that for himself, thank you very much!

When his meal arrived he set to work with gusto. After four or five mouthfuls he pushed his plate aside. It was hard to tell owing to how heavily-spiced the dish was but the whole lot tasted a bit dickey. Blaine suspected that they had used an inferior cut of meat. He just hoped it wasn’t water buffalo or yak or some nonsense like that. He had heard horror stories of native cooks making do with whatever happened to be at hand. He had half a mind to complain but thought better of it. What did one expect in this country anyway? The jewel in the crown; what utter rot that was. There was no point in making a scene. He drank his wine, ate more of the bread that had come with his meal and finished with coffee and dessert. When he rose from the table he belched quietly to himself.

Paul Blaine passed the rest of the evening in the smoking car reading the newspapers and drinking whiskey and soda. When he left to turn in, he attributed his somewhat queasy feeling to the fact that he had consumed a fair amount of alcohol on what was, for all intents and purposes, an empty stomach. He tossed and turned in his berth. At some point during the early hours of the morning he became violently ill. He was not alone. It seems that anyone who had ordered the beef curry at dinner suffered from the same gastrointestinal distress. When the train eventually entered the station in Bombay a number of the passengers, in fact, had to be hospitalized. All things being equal, Blaine had been lucky. His symptoms passed quickly. He was weak and dehydrated for a day or two but by the time his ship sailed he felt none the worse for wear … and, besides, he had needed to lose a few pounds anyway.

The authorities conducted a rather perfunctory investigation. The kitchen staff was interrogated and the facilities aboard the train were inspected but to little effect. Everyone knew how ferociously difficult it was to keep meat from spoiling in this climate. Besides, as one of the ministers remarked, mysterious maladies were hardly a rarity in these parts.


Some days later when the train was making its scheduled return to Delhi , one of the supply stewards entered his quarters and locked the door. He pulled open a drawer and, reaching underneath, extracted an envelope which had been carefully secreted there. It contained a rather large sum of money. The man began counting. He knew it was all there, he had checked at least twice already today, but it never hurt to be sure. What a remarkably easy way to make a profit! He smiled when he thought of what his wife would say. He was well on his way to having the funds necessary so that he and his family could finally return home to Essex . But he had to be careful. He had to hold off for a bit now. No one had ever gotten sick before. There had been some complaints, to be sure, but that wasn’t at all unusual. If people fell ill again too soon, however, everyone would become suspicious and they might be forced to look into the matter much more closely. No matter, he and his native partners could afford to be patient. There was certainly no shortage of corpses in India … and there were more than a few overworked and underpaid functionaries desperate to dispose of the bodies in the most efficient manner possible. If someone took advantage of that deplorable situation, so be it. The British were always complaining that the people in this insane country weren’t enterprising enough. He wondered what they would think if they only knew. Next time he’d make certain that the shipment was packaged as chicken.

Paul Blaine, for his part, eventually arrived home safely. It was quite some time, however, before he fancied another curry.


BIO: James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York. Most recently, his short fiction has been published in The Taj Mahal Review, The Magazine of Crime & Suspense, Orchard Press Mysteries, Shine: The Journal of Flash, Pen Pricks Micro-Fiction and Coffee Cramp Ezine.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

James C. Clar-I've long admired your stories on here and this one is terrific. The setting and concept is so original. I wonder if you'd be willing to write a review of a forgotten book for my blog project. If so, please contact me at
Patti Abbott