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AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS
by Charles Todd

Genre: Mystery, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Now as the train came to a smooth stop and the man sitting opposite me opened our compartment door, I smelled London, that acrid mixture of wet clothing, coal smoke, and damp that I had come to know so well. My fellow passenger smiled as he handed down my valise, and I thanked him before setting out across the crowded platform. 

As I threaded my way through throngs of families seeing their loved ones off to God knew where, I caught snatches of hurried, last minute conversations.

“You will be careful, won’t you?” 

“Mother will expect you to write every day—”

“I love you, my boy. You’re in my heart always.” 

“Did you remember to pack your books?”

“I’m so proud of you, son. So proud—”

A pair of Highland officers stepped aside to allow me to pass, and I found myself facing a couple who were oblivious to my approach and blocking my way to the exit. 

She was standing with her head bent and slightly turned toward her companion, her hat brim shielding her face. But even at a distance of several yards, I could tell that she was crying, her shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs. The man, an officer in a Wiltshire regiment, seemed not to know how to console her. He stood with his hands at his side, clenching and unclenching them, an expression of long-suffering on his face. I thought he must be returning to the Front and had lived through this scene before. She clutched an umbrella under her right arm while her left was holding to his as if it were a lifeline. 

Her distress stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Watching them, I wondered at his reluctance to touch her and at the same time I was struck by the air of desperation about her. I’d seen this same desperation in men who had lost limbs or were blinded, a refusal to accept a bitter truth that was destroying them emotionally. 

But there was nothing I could do. Rescuing kittens and dogs was one thing, marching up to complete strangers and asking what was wrong was something else.

Still, I felt a surge of pity, and my training was to comfort, not ignore, as her companion was doing. 

I was about to walk around them when a whistle blew and she lifted her head to cast an anguished glance at the train, as if afraid it was on the point of departing. 

I had the shock of my life. 

I’d seen her before. There was no doubt about it.