Later, in the dining car, she said, "You haven't asked me about Chelle. Not one thing. I've been waiting for it, Skip, but it hasn't happened. Want to tell me why?"
He shook his head.
"She divorced me, you're quite correct. She divorced her father, too, after she enlisted. Were you aware of that?"
"No." He studied the menu before touching several items.
"It doesn't mean she doesn't love me, and it certainly doesn't mean I don't love her. If you thought she didn't love me, why did you spend so much to bring me back?"
"I hope she'll like having you again. I wanted to get her something that would delight her, and you were the only gift I could find that seemed to have much chance." He hesitated. "I wanted to get you a separate compartment, a nice one near mine. We were too late with that, the train was full."
"Susan. Susan's my secretary. She takes care of things like that for me. I asked if you'd mind sharing a compartment with me. They said they'd tell you that you had to."
"They did. I made no objection."
"Aren't you going to order?"
"I suppose. What's the green button?" The slight smile that twitched her lips made him suspect that she already knew.
"It means that you're ordering what the previous diner at the table ordered. Women - young girls for the most part - often want to do that. I don't know why."
"But you know about them."
"Yes, I do."
"I won't pry, Skip." The smile appeared in earnest. "Not now, because I know I wouldn't find out anything. Later, possibly. Some girls are terrified of ordering anything too costly. I was never one of those, but I knew some like that."
"Others are afraid they'll order something they don't know how to eat. Lobster or pigs' trotters, a dish that takes finesse. If they order what the man orders, he can't object to the price, and they can see how he eats it."
"So you ordered what I ordered, without knowing what it was."
"It seemed simpler like that. Either I'm not hungry at all, or I'm so hungry I'll eat anything. I'll know when the food comes. Wouldn't you think they'd have a waiter to take our order? He could answer our questions then."
Skip nodded absently. "They do that in second class."
It evoked a throaty chuckle. "We privileged few needn't worry about keeping the proles employed. Perhaps that's what's wrong with the system."
"It may be."
"I was a wealthy woman, Skip."
"I've almost nothing now. Just a few noras that a woman gave me before she let me out at the station. I'm going to need more."
"You want more. I anticipated that."
"May I have it?"
"Not now. I have to have some way to control you."
"Surely there are others."
"There are, but I like this one."
She laughed. "You're rather too much fun to cross blades with. I could cut Charles to pieces in two minutes - it was part of the reason I opted out. Would you like to stay in our compartment while I shower and get ready for bed?"
He shook his head.
"No? I was hoping you would. I was going to charge you for it."
"No. I'll wait in the bar car."
A waiter arrived, trailed by an assistant who carried an identical meal. "Questions?" The waiter looked from one to the other. "Additional needs? Monsieur? Madame?"
"I've a thousand," Vanessa told him, "but you can't supply any of them."
* * *
As Skip sat in the bar car sipping Chablis-and-soda, the barmaid's assistant's helper muttered, "I wouldn't call you an enthusiastic drinker, sir."
"I'm not," Skip told her. "I'm just waiting for the dead woman in my compartment to go to bed."
Excerpted from Home Fires by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 2011 by Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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