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Forty minutes out of London, passing through the rolling green fields and cherry orchards of Kent, the morning train of the South Eastern Railway attained its maximum speed of fifty-four miles an hour. Riding the bright blue-painted engine, the driver in his red uniform could be seen standing upright in the open air, unshielded by any cab or windscreen, while at his feet the engineer crouched, shoveling coal into the glowing furnaces of the engine. Behind the chugging engine and tender were three yellow first-class coaches, followed by seven green second-class carriages; and at the very end, a gray, windowless luggage van.
As the train clattered down the track on its way to the coast, the sliding door of the luggage van opened suddenly, revealing a desperate struggle inside. The contest was most unevenly matched: a slender youth in tattered clothing, striking out against a burly, blue-uniformed railway guard. Although weaker, the youth made a good showing, landing one or two telling blows against his hulking opponent. Indeed, it was only by accident that the guard, having been knocked to his knees, should spring forward in such a way that the youth was caught unprepared and flung clear of the train through the open door, so that he landed tumbling and bouncing like a rag doll upon the ground.
The guard, gasping for breath, looked back at the fast-receding figure of the fallen youth. Then he closed the sliding door. The train sped on, its whistle shrieking. Soon it was gone round a gentle curve, and all that remained was the faint sound of the chugging engine, and the lingering drifting gray smoke that slowlysettled over the tracks and the body of the motionless youth.
After a minute or two, the youth stirred. In great pain, he raised himself up on one elbow, and seemed about to rise to his feet. But his efforts were to no avail; he instantly collapsed back to the ground, gave a final convulsive shudder, and lay wholly still.
Half an hour later, an elegant black brougham coach with rich crimson wheels came down the dirt road that ran parallel to the railway tracks. The coach came to a hill, and the driver drew up his horse. A most singular gentleman emerged, fashionably dressed in a dark green velvet frock coat and high beaver hat. The gentleman climbed the hill, pressed binoculars to his eyes, and swept the length of the tracks. Immediately he fixed on the body of the prostrate youth. But the gentleman made no attempt to approach him, or to aid him in any way. On the contrary, he remained standing on the hill until he was certain the lad was dead. Only then did he turn aside, climb into his waiting coach, and drive back in the direction he had come, northward toward London.Great Train Robbery. Copyright © by Michael Crichton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.