Impasse – Chapter Four
The sing-song tone of the ringer sounded first, followed by the vibration that shook the rickety motel room floor all the way up to the bed. Detective Farva rolled over as soon as the feeling registered for him, planting his feet hard on the oily carpet before ducking to the floor where the pocket of his slacks held the phone.
“I’m here, what’s up?”
The deep voice wasn’t what he was expecting on the other end of the line. “Did I catch you at a bad time, Farve?”
“Uh, Chief,” he lowered his voice. The detective’s eyes adjusted to the dark. The covers of the bed behind him stirred, messy dyed-red hair flipping over in reaction to his voice. “No, I thought you might have been… the wife. What time is it?”
“Just before three,” Schultz answered. “Why would the wife be calling, especially at this hour? She out of town?”
“Or have you been out at the bar? Sleeping out in your car somewhere, now?”
Schultz hummed. “Well, it’s not my business if you are. But if you’re up and sober, I need another body. Down at the tracks. Second avenue.”
Farva nodded as he spoke. “Yeah. Yes, I’ll be there. It won’t be long.”
The detective stowed the phone and pulled his slacks on in one single movement. The bedded woman propped her head up on one arm as he finished dressing. “Out of here?”
“Something came up,” Farva shrugged. “You get some free time, I guess.”
“Free things are never truly free, love. Stay safe out there.”
Farva shook his head and put a cigarette to his lips in a practiced motion from his coat pocket. Opening the door revealed the parking lot soaked with pouring rain, the gutters and eaves of the motel dripping with engorged droplets. Before dashing across the slick asphalt to his car, he tucked the cigarette behind his ear and readied the proper key to enter the vehicle without a wasted second.
Somewhere between the motel at the far end of town and the avenues, the detective found himself tapping through the contacts to reach the landline of his home. I doubt she’d get up to answer, but at least she’ll hear my voice through the machine.
He sucked in a deep breath and waited for the line to decide that enough rings had sounded. After his own voice played back to him in the message, he enunciated the carefully chosen words. “Sorry, babe. Something came up, the chief is calling me downtown. Maybe I’ll see you in the morning before you leave for work. Love you, bye.”
The police chief stepped out of the patrol car, its lights strobing in the night, as Farva pulled up, the call not long behind him. Schultz and his mustache were dressed down in a covering of clear plastic, hood, and all to brave the rain. The tracks were occupied by a fancy tourist-type train, unmoving, and lit only by the patrol car’s headlights.
Farva pulled the wide-brimmed hat out of his back seat and covered himself with it as Schultz approached, nose flaring. “I’m surprised, I don’t smell even a bit of booze on you. Could be covered up by all the smoke, though.”
“I’m good, chief,” Farva muttered, blinking through the rain. “Road’s blocked, huh? Why isn’t it moving?”
“Before you ask, nobody ended up on the rails. Come on, let’s get out of this,” he said, turning and waving, the plastic parka crinkling loudly.
The sound of the crossing chime was nearly covered up by the downpour but was certainly noticeable as they ducked under the guard rails. The ballast rocks were slippery underfoot, as were the narrow stairs to the rear-most car of the train. The chief had his long, heavy flashlight out from under the parka by the time the detective had found his footing beside “You know what this train is, don’t you?”
“Not a clue,” Farva muttered, removing his hat and slapping the excess water from its brim.
“It’s one of those tourist type trains. I would have just guessed another random train if it weren’t for the kid back at home talking about them all the time. He saw an ad on TV for the package this particular one runs. He loves the things, ya know?”
“Kids, right?” The detective shrugged, looking up at the tin roof, rattling and pinging with drops of rain.
“You make it sound like you don’t want any. You’ve been married for what is it, a year now? You been tryin’?”
“That’s none of your business,” Farva said with a grimace, shaking his head. “Just tell me why we’re here.”
“Fine,” the chief retracted, arms folded across his chest. “Well, this train should be moving as you might guess. It should have a lot of things, to tell you the truth. Passengers, staff, a conductor, engineer. But by all accounts, including me and the boy having a look about, there’s nobody.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It certainly doesn’t. Listen, this shouldn’t be our problem, hopefully, we can push this off on the state, being on their tracks and all. Maybe it’s just some technical fuck-up or weird circumstance that brought it here to our doorstep, but it’s still too early to decide anything. But I want to give this our due diligence just in case someone higher up the chain somewhere tries to point fingers.”
Farva nodded along with the words, trying to peer in through the back window. “And by that, you mean…?”
Schultz shoved the end of the heavy knurled flashlight at the detective. “Here, you’ll need this. Just go and have a look around the insides, just for anything that looks like funny business. I think the doors are mostly unlocked between the cars. I need to finish filling out a prelim report in the car.”
Farva grabbed the flashlight, shifting its weight around to better aim the beam. A shiver ran down his spine and he spoke up before the chief descended the narrow stairs, crinkling poncho and all. “No other trains are coming this way, I hope?”
Schultz shrugged, looking back up at him. “Pretty rare than any come around this time of night, apart from this guy. But you’d hear them a mile away, and they know how to use their brakes. Get to it… please?”
“Fine.” Farva huffed, tugging on the handle of the door in the beam of the flashlight. The caboose. What a name; a terrible, unserious one at that. This one only held cargo and baggage and dried foodstuffs.
The detective pushed back the brim of his hat, still very damp, to get a better look ahead. His free hand found the edge of a wooden crate, sealed and unmoving in the center of the floor. Whatever it contained was none of his business, despite a picking sensation at his brain telling him to peek through one of the cracks.
The platform to the next car was barely sheltered from the rain, slick with water and old oil too, with a daunting enough gap over the coupling. Farva crossed over, one foot and hand at a time, ensuring his grasp was on the door handle before daring to take a breath.
The individual cars were of an unsurprising nature considering the type of train and its expected passengers, with amenities and services tucked into uniform boxes on wheels. At the same time, it seemed as if such passengers and staff had been there, if for but an instant— the pans in the galley sink, coated in grease and food bits, beds in the private rooms slightly unmade, a newspaper, unfolded, sitting upon on a bench in the observation car. Despite such signs, not a shred remained of what could be called a personal item.
The people left, but it kept moving… why… how long, and what caused the train to stop at this place? Surely the chief has made all the appropriate calls. If there was anything to be found to answer at least some of these questions, it would be the locomotive.
The head of the train was just beyond one final car of bunks for the staff, equally devoid of life as the previous cars. Farva’s back became slick with rainwater as he passed between the bins of coal. The final platform there before the engine room was slick and narrow. The detective’s heart thumped and he nearly lost grip on the flashlight, his hands cold and wet. Droplets of rain passed and glowed in the beam for fractions of seconds.
I’ve been here before. How? Why? It doesn’t make sense.
Farva made sure the flashlight was tight in his grip as he stepped forward. In his free hand, he twisted the handle of the final door, holding his breath. Dust danced in the beam, inky specks from the movement of coal from the bins and the furnace on the head of a shovel.
The detective straddled the doorway, one foot left outside, no way for the door to close behind him. There was nothing but silence from the antique-looking engine and boiler until there wasn’t.
A push from behind felt as if he had been shoved, but instead, it was his wet soles gliding against the slick ground as the train jerked forward. The distinct puttering and puffing of the engine began to grow louder as did the clicking and clacking and grinding of the drive wheels below the locomotive. Farva jerked back only to see the sight of the strobing red and blue lights and glaring high beams trailing off in the distance. Pushing off the door frame, Farva jerked back and began to rush for the back of the train, his thigh aching as he increased his pace.
The detective passed the staff beds, leaving wet footprints, then made across to the rooms in coach, the snack bar, and finally the observation lounge. The rain darted by the window as the forward movement continued, the sound of the locomotive puffing in the distance, broken up by the clacking of the wheels over the rail gaps.
How did it start? Where is it going to end up? What happens if I can’t stop it? I have to stop it, there must be a brake.
And so the detective turned about, his feet gliding over the slick ridges of the vinyl flooring, determinedly headed for the locomotive once more. He flung the door open, amplifying the chugging of the engine and the clacking of the wheels and the whoosh of the freezing night air, and his feet lost traction, his hand couldn’t find the railing, and the flashlight tumbled down into the darkness of the ground below, followed by the detective himself. His body made contact with the coupling for only a moment before rolling off, his spine finding the hard metal of the rail and his eyes finding, in the dim light, the car’s rear set of wheels barreling towards him.