Three Strikes

Tim Frank

It was the end of Mervyn's late shift, and he had just docked his underground train into the depot. He'd driven back and forth from Stratford to Stanmore all evening, the same old routine, every night, five days a week. He heaved his rucksack onto his shoulder and sighed. It had been five years since he had run over and killed his second suicide victim, splattering the poor young man's brains across the tracks. His first victim had jumped in front of his train twelve years ago, and Mervyn could still remember seeing the middle-aged man's tears falling from his cheeks as he leaped before the oncoming front carriage, still carrying his briefcase.

There was a protocol applied for drivers who worked for the London underground known as the Three Strikes rule. It stated that if a train driver kills three people in their career on their route, whether by suicide, accident or murder, said driver would be given indefinite leave. They would get a bonus and pay raise to boot. Yet this opportunity was limited, there were only a few spots available. Mervyn didn't know how many places were still up for grabs, but he had felt under pressure to get his third strike for some time now. He had to find a new victim. He had prepared the groundwork to switch his routes if that is what was needed. Mervyn was fed up, wanted out, and prayed every day for his third victim to come tumbling before his train to release him from the daily grind, shipping ungrateful commuters to their destinations. Little did they know how much he suffered and felt the desire to crash his train into a ball of flames. But it was hard to crash a train, very hard. They have tracks.

The next day he woke up around noon, washed, shaved, and played with his cocker spaniel named Cinnamon for half an hour, letting the dog lick peanut butter he'd spread on his barefoot. Though lately, he felt the dog was going through the motions and would prefer Bovril. He set up his cable to record the football that was showing later in the evening and the dating reality show for pescatarians he was currently obsessed with, both of which he would watch that night alone with a couple of cans of Stella.

Mervyn left his flat and took the underground to an antiseptic conference room in Waterloo where a group of traumatized drivers, all men of varying ages, gathered once a week to discuss their experiences of running over commuters. Most men had only killed one passenger, but there were a few who had notched up two, and you could see it in their eyes. They were the ones who spoke the least as they sat on foldout chairs arranged in a circle, quietly sipping their tea. Mervyn was a quiet one too despite having attended for years, but he listened and listened hard, making sure to take in everything.

‘Merv, you haven't shared anything for a while,’ said Priya Baat, an East Asian woman with a knee-length skirt and John Lennon style spectacles who convened the weekly sessions.

Mervyn looked around the room and felt the strain of everyone staring at him. Finally, he mumbled, ‘It's been a long time since I experienced my last tragedy and I think I've got a handle on it now. Because of that, I'm thinking of quitting these meetings. But before I leave for good, I was wondering where others in the group suffered their tragedies. I'd like to know so I can avoid those areas in the future.’

‘Yes, I believe that I understand what you're saying but, and excuse me for being blunt Merv,’ said Priya, ‘you’ve made these exact statements almost every month for the last five years.’

‘Well this time I mean it,’ bristled Mervyn. ‘I don't need this place the way these other men do. I have a strong constitution, and it takes a lot to get me down. But I still need to make sure a catastrophe doesn't happen again, and figuring out the accident hotspots from my fellow victims is the only way I can guarantee that.’

‘Well, I think you should stay,’ said a guy with a skinny frame whose all-white clothes swamped him. His trouser leg swayed as he tapped his foot. His name was Gerrard Parmesan.

‘I know how difficult it is to get over trauma. All of us have suffered,’ said Gerrard. ‘I mean, I've bagged two bodies myself, so I totally empathize with you, Merv. We're all here to support you, Merv, you're special to us.’

‘The name's Mervyn,’ he said, ‘and aren't you new here? I don't need any advice from you or anyone.’

‘I didn't mean...’ said Gerrard. ‘I'm just saying that...’

‘Well, OK, sorry to interrupt guys, but that just about wraps it up for today,’ said Priya. ‘Merv, think about what we talked about before you make any rash decisions. See you all next week.’

The group piled out of conference room and into The Waterloo Shove, a pub located around the corner, where they propped up the bar and gossiped about what they'd like to do to Priya, despite the fact they found her to be bossy and not really that attractive.

Mervyn avoided this regular pastime and stood across the street waiting for his bus. Gerrard rushed out of the pub, skipped across the road, carefully dodging traffic, and joined Mervyn at the bus stop.

‘I feel like we might have got off on the wrong foot,’ Gerrard said. ‘Why don't you come and have a drink with me and the guys and we can have a nice chat and get to know each other.’

Mervyn spat his gum out onto the pavement and said, ‘I don't like getting too close to fellow patients. It affects the process. So, I'm sorry if that offends you, but that's the way it is. Hate me if you like.’

‘Oh, I don't hate you,’ said Gerrard. ‘I totally understand, but I really think you should blow off some steam with me and the boys. Everyone's been so helpful and welcoming to me; they're a great bunch. I'm sure if we all put our minds together, we can help.’

‘Well, I'm very happy for you,’ Mervyn said, ‘but I'd rather just be left alone.’

Gerrard shrugged, gave Mervyn a jokey salute, and weaved his way back across the road to the pub where one of the men from the group greeted him with an ice-cold pint of Guinness.

Mervyn stepped onto a bus, scanned his oyster card, and took a seat. He unraveled a sheet of paper from his back pocket, and as he tried to read his own handwriting, he squinted and angled his head. He had written notes over the last few years, gathering information about deaths that his fellow therapy patients had endured, in the hope he could divine where the next casualty would occur. That day, before he clocked in to his shift at work, he visited Clapham Junction, Finsbury Park, Leicester Square, and Kilburn. But as he arrived at each station, he was at a loss as to what to do beyond staring into the eyes of random people, city workers, and tourists. But none of this got him any closer to his goal. He was still clueless as to how to predict the next fatality. The only way Mervyn could think of to increase his chances of predicting the next death was to study the experiences of the men in his therapy group in greater detail. Maybe there would be a sign, a pattern, a key. He must be missing something, he mused.

A few months later, Mervyn had still found no new leads, despite attending therapy religiously. He maintained his routine of traveling around London, staring at strangers and making the general public feel distinctly uncomfortable.

As he journeyed from one station to another on a bright but chilly spring afternoon—squirrels scurrying up trees and magpies pecking around the gravel beside the tracks—he got the feeling he was being followed. He tried to shake the impression, but it persisted, so he tested the theory by jumping on and off trains haphazardly until he caught sight of a man in a navy-blue hoodie shadowing his every move. Finally, Mervyn hid in the Newbury Park waiting room and jumped out on the spy who was confused and clueless as to where Mervyn had got to.

‘Who are you? What do you want?’ demanded Mervyn, as he seized the stranger by the shoulder and swiveled him around until they came face-to-face. It was Gerrard.

‘What are you doing here? Why are you following me?’ said Mervyn.

‘You caught me,’ smiled Gerrard, ‘and for what it's worth I'm sorry. But believe me, I have the best intentions. Look, I know what you're up to, and I'm not judging, I've been there myself.’

‘What exactly is it that you think I'm doing?’

Gerrard leaned in and said in a hushed tone, ‘You're after the third strike. I'm right, aren't I?’

‘Well...’ said Mervyn.

‘There's no shame in it,’ said Gerrard. ‘I mean, we've all considered it at one point or another. It's just one of those things, the reward is so great, and when you hit two strikes, well, you can almost taste it, can't you? In fact, if we put our heads together, we could probably hash out a plan. What do you say?’

‘Really, you'd help me?’ said Mervyn.

‘Sure, why not? I consider you a buddy, Merv,’ said Gerrard, ‘I'd be happy to point you in the right direction. We'd make a great team.’

‘I, er... No, no,’ said Mervyn, ‘this is crazy. What am I thinking. Let's just forget this ever happened, OK? Please don't tell anyone. Oh god, this is all too much.’

‘Calm down, Merv. It's OK. No problem at all,’ Gerrard said. ‘But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.’

Mervyn gave the group a wide berth for a month, but eventually, he couldn't tear himself away from the place. He missed it, and try as he might he couldn't get his conversation with Gerrard at Newbury Park out of his head. As he entered the therapy room Priya stood and gave him a warm welcome, but the rest of the guys greeted him with icy stares, except for Gerrard who waved at him gaily. Each of the men went through the routine of introducing themselves, as they did in every session, and Mervyn followed suit. He noticed everyone was making notes in pads throughout the meeting, which was unusual as more often than not, it was him who was scribbling away as the others stared into space or jabbered away inanely. After about forty minutes, Gerrard stood and interrupted the meeting. He covered his nose with a tissue and said, ‘May I please be excused? I seem to have a nosebleed.’

‘Of course, Gerrard,’ said Priya. ‘Take your time.’

Thirty seconds later, the fire alarm blasted against everyone's ears. The group panicked, dropped their notepads and darted outside screaming, ‘Fire! Fire! We're all going to die!’

As they made their escape, one of the men's pads fell at Mervyn's feet. It was opened to a page that had written on it the words: Tottenham Court Road every week from 3pm.

As the alarm continued to rattle the premises, Mervyn hung back to investigate the other notepads. Strangely enough, each of the pads had the words Tottenham Court Road, Tuesday from 3pm jotted in them in different fonts and colors, except for Anish' s—a patient currently on one strike who had been enrolled in the group almost as long as Mervyn. He had written: I want Priya Baat's babies.

Just then, the alarm came to an abrupt halt and Priya ushered the men back into the therapy room.

‘Stop crying, Anish,’ she said. ‘It must have been a false alarm, some prankster no doubt.’

Gerrard came back last with no sign of a bloody nose. He reached over and retrieved his pad, and the session carried on as if nothing had happened.

Filled with suspicion, Mervyn decided he would listen to his instincts and follow the trail to Tottenham Court Road station next Tuesday. He suspected that this could be a potential hotspot that the other men were hiding from him.

Mervyn arrived at 2.30pm—he didn't want to miss a thing. He walked down to the far end of the platform and took a seat by the arrivals board. He watched the crowd as it amassed then poured onto trains every few minutes. He couldn't see anything suspicious, but it was early yet, and he sensed something was up. He had a strong feeling some poor sap was going to fall to their death that day.

A man wrapped up in a black trench coat, wearing silver Top Gun style shades and a Mickey Mouse baseball cap, sidled up to Mervyn and said, ‘It's going down, and it's going down today. Oh my god, I just can't take it.’

Mervyn peered into the man's sunglasses. ‘Anish?’ he said. ‘What are you doing here? What's going on?’

‘Everyone's here,’ said Anish pointing down the platform at a group of men in trench coats, shades, and baseball caps all huddled around a vending machine slapping the glass to recover a Twix that had got stuck.

‘Anish,’ said Mervyn, ‘explain yourself.’

‘Oh, I can't, I can't,’ Anish said. ‘Everyone said I'd ruin the plan and I promised I wouldn't. I promised on my life.’

Mervyn grabbed Anish by the lapels and drew him close and said, ‘So help me God if you don't tell me what's going on, I'm going to force-feed you peanuts until your head explodes.’

Anish pondered for a moment, then said, ‘OK, but you didn't hear it from me. The guys want to throw someone under the train today, Gerrard's train, at three. They want him to get his third strike, given how nice he is and all. He really is a great guy, Merv, always buying the guys pints and giving cookery tips. Last night, I used a Lloyd Grossman sauce he recommended, and it was delicious.

The clock had struck three, and the men from the group had gobbled down their Twix and were pacing towards Mervyn and Anish with serious intent.

‘I didn't tell him anything,’ blurted Anish.

‘That's because you know nothing,’ said one of the guys. ‘We knew if we had told you the plan you would have ruined it.’

‘Hang on, guys,’ said Mervyn. ‘Can you please tell me what is the plan?’

‘You've been caught, Merv,’ said another guy. ‘Caught red-handed, lying, cheating, and plotting against us for years, and now the truth is out and boy I'll tell you, we'll have our revenge!’

‘What?’ said Mervyn. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘We know you've been tracking our movements, pretending you want to avoid suicide hotspots, when in fact you want one of us under your train so you can get your third strike. Well, it's not going to happen, we won't let you get away with it.’

‘I don't understand,’ said Mervyn. ‘Why on earth would you think that?’

‘Gerrard has opened our eyes to the truth, and now we're going to reward him with his third strike.’

A train approached, and the men converged on Mervyn, lifted him off his feet, and hurled him onto the tracks. He got squished. The driver hit the brakes, and the commuters on and off the train shrieked with horror.

Gerrard stepped out of the front cabin, looked at the mess and tutted. ‘Such a shame.’

The chief train controller soon joined Gerrard and said, ‘Well I don't know how you did it, Parmesan, but you've got your third strike, and it only took you four years, that's some record. A man with a more suspicious nature might presume you planned it all.’ The controller puffed his cheeks. ‘So, did you?’

‘Did I what?

‘Plan it.’

‘What do you think?’ Gerrard said tugging nervously at his shirt collar.

‘I think it would take one pretty sick mind to orchestrate all of this. Very sick. Because if you did, you'd lose all your benefits and go straight to jail where a nut like you would belong.’

‘Right.’

‘Oh, I'm just messing with you, Parmesan,’ the chief said, giving him a hefty slap on the shoulder. ‘Enjoy your severance package and use Uber from now on. Damn it. You can afford it. Oh, but wait, how stupid of me to forget, didn't you hear? The three strikes rule has been scrapped. They've upped it to four strikes. And that means you've got one more body to go. Isn't that inconvenient?’

‘Yes,’ said Gerrard, ‘that is...inconvenient.’

The chief started to chuckle. He fell into a crescendo of uncontrollable laughter as men in overalls began to peel Mervyn's body from under the tube. A crowd had gathered. The loudspeaker announced lengthy delays. Everyone flapped open their newspapers. Everyone sighed.


About the Author

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in journals many times, including Bourbon Penn, Bartleby Snopes,Thrice Fiction, Foliate Oak, and Able Muse. He is an upcoming writer specializing in the comic and the surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and is currently writing a sci-fi thriller novel.