Impasse – Chapter Three
Detective Farva yanked his face out of the pillow, the moist cough overtaking him and forcing him awake. He arched his back and forced himself up, rolling his legs about to find the edge of the bed and the floor beneath it, all while the phlegmy hacking continued to attack his lungs. The lights from the parking lot on the other side of the window crept through the crack in the curtains, just enough to illuminate the room and allow the detective to find his pants on the floor and shirt slung on the edge of the table.
The blonde sat up and watched as Farva’s back moved with his strained breaths. “You okay, hun?”
“I just need a… cigarette,” the detective breathing heavily, the cough abating. The pack was in his jacket hanging by the door.
“Don’t you think… taking it easy with them would help?”
“That’s the last thing I want to hear from you, woman,” Farva huffed, fumbling out a cigarette to place between his lips. Before he could find the lighter hidden in one of the other deep pockets, the nightstand erupted with the buzz and jingle of the phone. “Damn it, at a time like this? What time, anyway…?”
The woman tilted her head back to the alarm on her side of the motel bed. “Almost three. Time’s not up, but… nothing good ever comes of a call this late at night.”
Farva flipped open and answered the phone with a huff. “Hello? Chief? The tracks, second avenue, yeah? Give me a bit, I’ll be there.”
The clouds, unsure of whether to offer up rain or not that night, blocked out most of the moonlight. The only other thing to light up the tracks were Farva’s headlights and the strobing red and blue of the parked patrol cars. The fine painted paneling of the train cars there on location glowed in the passing bursts of color.
The detective found the police chief at the edge of the tracks just past the guard rails, staring up at the unmoving vehicle. “Someone end up on the tracks again? Accident, or on purpose?”
Schultz pulled his attention away and turned back. “Well, finding that information would be your job, wouldn’t it, Detective?” he sneered, adding emphasis on the tiresome title. “But no, not this time. The train here just stopped on the rails.”
Farva glanced at the stretch of train in either direction, a fresh cigarette managing to sneak in between his lips in the meantime. “Are trains known for breaking down?”
“They might, if they end up with nobody at the controls.”
“The engineer fall asleep, then?”
“No engineer, conductor. No service staff. No passengers. Nobody.”
Farva shook his head. “Bullshit.”
“It don’t make sense, I know, Farve. But I’ve had Jackson up and down the tracks, shining lights inside, knocking on the windows. Not a single soul.”
The cigarette was lit by then and slowly turning to ember. “Maybe someone hijacked it and jumped off when they decided they were far enough along.”
Schultz shrugged. “You know what train this is?”
“A fancy one, by the looks of it.”
“A touring company runs it. The wife has been holding onto a neat little brochure for their packaged deal, says she wants to go, all four of us. The kid loves trains, after all.”
“I woke up the wife to get their number from her little brochure and managed to get a hold of them. This train is right on track, right on time. Should be full of passengers. Should have a full staff tending to their needs. Should have a driver keeping it moving. None of those.”
“That’s something,” Farva breathed out slowly, releasing the last bit of chemical reassurance from the cigarette.
“Something my ass. It’s something that’ll give the whole town a headache if we don’t find out what’s going on. Listen, I’m filling out a report to the best of my ability, but I need someone to check out the interior. See if anything went down inside.”
“Fine,” Farva sighed, catching sight of the chief’s expectant eyes.
Schultz fiddled with his belt, unbuckling the heavy flashlight by his hip. “I take it you don’t have any of your gear? Here, take this. We dunno if the electricity is working.”
Farva felt the weight of the flashlight in his hand, the criss-cross pattern of the knurling against the skin of his palm, the cold metal. He took in a gasp, chest suddenly tight and hot.
“What’s with you?” Schultz offered a puzzled look.
Farva smacked at his sternum with his free hand, allowing his breath to return. “Nothing. I’m fine. I guess… I’ll start from the end.”
The caboose was decorative, at least only slightly more so than the rest of the train. It’s one of those steam trains, powered with coal… right? Did the chief say that? The door to the rearmost door of the train was open. Did Schultz open it? They call a blacksmith out? No, they never respond this quickly, especially in the middle of the night. I should take a note from them. If the train isn’t moving until the afternoon at the earliest, why should I be here at this hour? I forgot to call the wife…
The interior of the car contained various boxes and luggage. The wall shelves held a couple fancy rolling ones, likely for the passengers when they reached the resort at the end of the train journey. Other boxes and shelves were things for the crew to handle- spare parts, dry food, entertainment supplies. The center of the floor held a wide, stout wooden crate. The straps that would have held it in place were slipped off like it had been opened at some point. Farva ran his hands around the edge of the lid, but it gave no signs of budging. The flashing patrol car lights in the narrow windows near the ceiling reminded him to keep moving.
The next car was reachable across a short platform, bordering a gap that revealed the latching mechanism below. The detective crossed it without looking down. The long stride caused the old injury in his leg to complain, but nothing he wasn’t used to. The following door was unlocked like the first. Guess it doesn’t matter if they’re locked on not, on a moving train with plenty of staff anyways.
The interior was made up of cheap bunks with little privacy, intended for the staff that worked the train and entertained the money-flaunting guests. The upholstery smelled of smoke, which could have been from cigarettes or the train itself. If there were people on this train, most of them might have been sleeping in this very place at this very moment. But that was part of the problem that the chief explained, wasn’t it?
Beyond that car, the kitchen. A galley. Cramped, with ovens and counters and burners taking up most of the width. The faint smell of excess butter and meat lingered. The space was too cramped to feel comfortable in. Beyond, a dining car. Further beyond that, guest rooms, with locking doors, albeit unlocked and uninhabited. Smells of people- rich perfumes and shoe polish- but no belongings. The next car, the same.
The following rail car had wide windows and benches for watching the landscape pass by, but the night and condensation on the glass blocked out everything besides the strobing police lights. Schultz is going to throw a fit if I come back saying there is nothing… but I suppose he might not expect any more.
The following cars were catered to less spendy folks, with more compact rooms, tighter seats, and fewer dining options. Still out of my range or desire. The locomotive is just beyond here, if I had to guess.
The tall coal bins left only a slight space to pass between, leading finally to the main powerhouse of the train. Farva felt his chest suddenly heavy, struggling to take in air. He touched the handle of the door to the engineer’s compartment, expecting it to be warm, hot even, but the metal handle was no warmer than any other fixture he had made contact with. The heavier door swung open effortlessly. Inside, pipes and dials and a neat compartment for the coal to be inserted revealed themselves in the glow of the flashlight. In the wavering beam, all surfaces seemed to be immaculate, save a streak of old coal dust on the floor near the furnace door. It may or may not have been used, but… that’s not enough for the chief. One last look, just to make sure. Go back the way I came. Burn as much time not having to chat nicely with him.
Farva passed the bar and the cheap accommodations, the viewing deck, the fancy rooms, the dining car, the galley, and stopped, breath heavy, leg aching, at the crew beds. A smell crept up, one which he hadn’t smelled before. He tugged at the curtains, the narrow door to the latrine, and the tall storage closets. The smell wasn’t from any source in there. The doors between there and the caboose were extruding it. I thought I closed these. Was someone else here? He looked back, making sure the ones he had passed were secured as he thought.
The crate was there in that final car- the short, stout one- the one that looked as if it had been tinkered with. On his second pass, the detective saw the cracks where the nails had been pried up, the lid removed, and whatever inside seen, likely messed with. Was it the chief, maybe Travis?
The flashlight under his arm, Farva pulled at the lid, taking in the smell, sickly and sweet and something he now recognized, something he had smelled plenty before but couldn’t place. The contents weren’t packed neatly, nor with any extra material, an oiled-brown cloth resembling his jacket. There was hair, human, underneath it, a head, the same cut as his own— A body? — against his better judgment he yanked at the back of the material, pulled it up, the heavy, unwieldy mass, with limp arms and legs, and a face that slumped out of view but was somehow familiar.
“What the hell?” The flashlight fell from his hand and the mass of the corpse fell and slumped back into the crate, and before he could find the handle of the light there was a shrill sound that pierced the night air, a sound which he had heard plenty from his bed, half asleep.
Farva ran for the rear door, its frosted glass window glaring with a light brighter than the sun, the horn of the freight train on that same sole line bearing towards them, unaware of the stopped tourist trap. The caboose was decorative, certainly not heavy enough to take the impact of a much larger, more powerful train making contact. The car shook violently, causing Farva’s feet to slip out from underneath him. As the passenger separated itself from the rails and toppled sideways, both the wooden crate and the loose baggage toppled forward, heading towards him in the corner of the caboose.