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Open Alms (excerpt)

By James Fielden

Marcus Manach was not a monk but he liked to dress up as one, and he had good reason to, although over time that reason changed beyond all recognition.It had started with an investigation. There had been complaints of pickpocketing during the morning commute at Lightmere Station. The police had been informed and additional officers had been brought in to patrol the busy concourse, but no one had been caught, not even after several weeks. Wallets, phones, handbags, house keys and the odd piece of luggage continued to be stolen, and yet, despite the many cameras that peered and spied upon the hurried crowd, the thief remained at large.Marcus was the stationmaster of Lightmere Station, a position he had held for over a decade. He’d become accustomed to its problems and pressures, but this new situation had created a great personal crisis. As grievances piled up on his desk, he wrote letters of apology to each of the victims, doing his best to reassure them all that the authorities were looking into the matter and that the thief would soon be caught. Even so, many of his letters were returned with irate phone calls insisting that he, as the stationmaster, was personally responsible for their losses. Surely, he thought, he was not accountable for the ill deeds of others, but still the complaints flooded in. It was all very trying, and he was uncertain what to do. What more could he do? After all, the police were in the throes of a full enquiry.It was an elderly spinster who finally tipped the scales. Miss Witmouse was about to pay for her daily newspaper at the east end of the station when she let out an almighty scream; she’d reached into her handbag for her coin purse only to discover it stolen. Several hundred heads snapped in her direction while she shrieked and howled as though a limb had been torn from her body. She looked at the newspaper seller desperately, but all he could do was shrug his shoulders. With a cold smile he advised Miss Witmouse to report the matter to the police, which she did, but it was not enough. She was angry, insulted, even humiliated, and demanded to talk to the stationmaster, immediately and in person.Stationmaster Manach came down from his office and met Miss Witmouse by the newsstand. Even though he tried his best to calm her down, his efforts only fanned the flames of her outrage.“It’s a disgrace. An utter disgrace!” said the old woman. Her words spat and hissed with disdain. “What are you going to do? More to the point, what have you done? Nothing! That’s what. How can you run such a slapdash operation and still keep your position, Mr. Manach?”It wasn’t until later that evening that Miss Witmouse realized she’d left her purse at home, but she didn’t tell anyone; she preferred to keep up the pretense of victimhood than admit her folly.After assuring Miss Witmouse that he’d personally look into the matter, Marcus climbed the stairs to his office, wondering what it was that he could do that the police could not. He took off his stationmaster’s cap and sat motionless at his desk, staring out into space as though sightless. His body taut with stress, he pulled at his collar as if expecting it to somehow release his anxiety.Sliding his chair over to the window, he looked down upon the morning commute. His office overlooked the entire station. If he pressed his forehead to the glass, he could see almost every inch of the concourse. Sometimes, at the peak of the rush hour, he opened a window and leaned out as far as he dared to marvel at the constant ebb and flow of passengers. Here was an entire railway station under his command : nine platforms that stretched out to the suburbs, to the coast, to the mountains, to the sprawling forests and the cities beyond them. To the world.As he contemplated the bustle below, his fingers played with his precious pocket watch, the silver timepiece that ran the station—his station, his palace of trains, tracks and timetables. His pocket watch was the epicenter of the Lightmere Line, or at least he liked to think so.Spread out below him, sheltered under a vast canopy of glass, the station was something akin to a small town. At the center of the concourse there were a flower seller and her stall, a barista and his coffee cart, a chocolatier, and a cobbler with his shoeshine bench. Along the perimeter were ticket booths, a convenience store, a restaurant, a bar, and two competing cafés, each enticing travelers with aromas of fresh coffee and pastries.The railway station was not only Marcus’s domain; it was the love of his life. It was his calling, his vocation, and he was well suited to it. He liked order, regulations, schedules and patterns. He was a man who saw beauty in precision and in orderliness, and comfort in the cycles of honest work.He set his chin upon his fist and wondered what to do about the pickpocket. He wanted his customers to walk through the station unencumbered, without fear or intimidation. And he wanted his good name back. But then what course of positive action could he take? He tried to think how he could root out and apprehend the troubled soul that preyed upon them.He rested his forehead on the window pane. The concourse was unusually full of people that morning, some rushing, some lost, others irritated, ambling back and forth from one end of the station to the other as they waited for their train. How could he be expected to tell the difference between a normal, honest person going about his or her business and a villain with thievery on his mind?Suddenly, an intriguing idea came to him. In the basement of the station, below the ticket booths and the main thoroughfare, was the Lost and Found, a long, narrow room of shelves and stacked boxes where all manner of interesting odds and ends had accumulated, each of them waiting for their former owners to reclaim them or to be auctioned off and adopted by new ones. Marcus had always thought it an extraordinary place, the human world in miniature, containing as it did a representation of all the many hobbies, passions and professions of the travelers that passed through his station.There were the usual items that you might expect to find—phones, spectacles, overcoats, umbrellas and briefcases—but also secured in the underground storage were items that most people would have thought impossible to misplace on a train—a typewriter, a tuba, a collection of rare coins lovingly set in heavy wooden frames, a stuffed lion as large as a man, and even a seven-foot statue of an angel once destined to adorn a suburban garden somewhere along the Lightmere Line. Surely, he thought, such items were not lost; they were abandoned, set adrift on the tides of trains like jetsam upon the sea.Marcus bypassed all of these, however, and headed straight for the back of the room, where boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling, bulging and spilling clothes.It took Marcus almost an hour to rummage through his options. There was much to choose from, although how so much clothing had been abandoned had always puzzled him. In addition to the usual fare of business suits and uniforms—school, culinary and military—there were also boxes full of costumes—superhero and villain, pirate and sorcerer, clown and even an astronaut. Finally, after searching through twenty containers, he found what he was looking for in a leather satchel: a monk’s habit, complete with sandals, a leather belt, a crucifix, and an alms bowl and bell.As he held the costume up to the light bulb, he wondered if he was looking at a reproduction or if it was in fact an authentic religious habit. It didn’t look like a piece of cloth stitched together for a party or a play; its material was too coarse, too worn and heavy, and the cowl, cavernous enough to wrap him up in credible anonymity, looked to have been stitched by hand. Had someone been defrocked? Or perhaps this monk had tired of his vocation and had decided to dissolve into the common crowd of ordinary men? He sat for a few moments and tried to imagine the monk’s face, his dignity, his solemn smile, and the words he might have uttered. Then he bundled it all back into the satchel and took them up to his office where he sat down to prepare for his private investigation.

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