Tommy couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It didn’t make any sense. Why would his great grandfather have moved the luggage belonging to a man who was now leaning up against the wall in the back of the train with a sheet covering his cold, dead body? The Conductor sat down on top of a large piece of luggage. Tommy racked his brain for a possible explanation, but none came to mind.
“This cannot be possible, Harold. It just simply cannot be.” Tommy started to get frustrated.
“Then how can you explain this?” The Conductor gave him a blank stare.
“Is it a forgery? Like in The Secret Warning?” Sam offered from where he was standing in the doorway.
“A forgery. That is the only explanation! Clearly it has been forged,” the Conductor said emphatically as he leapt to his feet. His mustache bobbed back and forth as he spoke. Tommy looked long and hard at Sam, who did not look away. Why was he still being helpful—especially after Tommy picked him up like a rag doll? If it were him, he’d be in the corner sulking—not trying to be helpful.
Nonplussed, Tommy finally returned to the task at hand. He thought through the comment, and yes, it did make sense. The Conductor had surely seen that signature many times before and would know whether or not it was a fake. This idea was certainly better than the alternative—that his great grandfather was somehow involved in a plot that involved a dead body.
“Okay. So, it is. What does that tell us?” Tommy asked.
The Conductor sat back down, again, and put his hand under his chin. Tommy started to pace back and forth, trying to wrap his mind on the complexity of this new clue. All the while, he could feel, in the back of his mind, the time winding down as The Daylight got closer and closer to Pit River Bridge. The anxiety festered in his thoughts.
“What about where he was staying?” Sam provided.
“Yes,” the Conductor began. “Perhaps we can find out more if we go to his cabin. Most of the passengers, especially the more private ones, who purchase their own sleeper tend to have a personal duffel on them when they come aboard. It is quite possible that a thorough search of Dr. Pence’s belongings that he had in his possession might yield more information.”
Tommy nodded his head in agreement. It made sense to him.
“Lead the way, Conductor,” Tommy said with a tilt of his head. The Conductor turned, but Tommy didn’t immediately follow. Instead, he waited on Sam to approach before he turned to face him.
“Look, I didn’t mean—”
“—Yeah, you did Tommy. You don’t get it. I never once stopped being your friend.” His words were slow and precise. “While you stopped hanging out with me so you could learn about trains, I was the one trying to invite you to stuff. I was the one sticking up for you. So, no, this has nothing to do with being cool. It’s about the fact that you stopped being someone I could rely on.”
The words cut deep into Tommy as Sam pushed his way past him. Tommy was angry, but knew deep down that what Sam was saying was true.
“Sam, let me explain…”
“No. Let’s just figure out this stupid mystery and get back to the real world,” Sam said hollowly before he slipped out of the baggage car. With a confused shame riding on his shoulders, Tommy followed.
The trek to the private sleeper section of The Daylight didn’t take long, but it was long enough for Tommy to lose himself in his own head. Sam’s words spread out across his thoughts until each one was a small needle embedded into his mind. The accusations were true, and that fact bothered Tommy the most. As they walked, he could only stare at the back of Sam’s legs, wondering if their relationship could possibly be fixed.
On top of their disintegrating friendship, each chug of the train’s engine reminded him of the terrifying reality set before them. As it moved across the landscape, the train swayed undecidedly, and Tommy felt his stomach drop each time they hit a bump or took a corner too sharply. Pit River was approaching, and with its silent march towards The Daylight it brought with it the demise of everyone on board—including himself.
“Dr. Pence is in sleeper number forty-four,” the Conductor said aloud. Tommy merely nodded absentmindedly. He couldn’t shake out of his head all the faces he observed as he walked the length of the train. He saw children—laughing and playing. He saw people holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes as they talked. There were families on board—brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Every single one of them had a life ahead of them, but standing in the way was the Pit River Bridge.
“Forty-one. Forty-two. Should be just ahead,” the Conductor said with a tilt of his head. “Forty-three. And here we go, forty-four.” The two men came to a stop in front of a wood door stained a deep brown, almost black color. At head height was a plaque with the number “44” embossed in gold. “Let me just get the right key,” the Conductor offered as he fumbled in his pocket.
As he searched through the large keyring he pulled out of his pocket, Tommy scrutinized the door as something caught his eye. The gold plaque was tilted slightly, as if it was off center. Tommy’s eyes continued across the door as he searched for other irregularities. Midway down the door was a thin crack that started at the handle and traveled upward like a vein. Tommy could barely see it, but caught the faintest color of exposed wood.
“Look,” Tommy whispered. The Conductor glanced up from his search. Tommy held his hand out and pointed at the jagged line. “It looks like we’re not the first ones here,” Tommy said solemnly. The Conductor flashed him a concerned look as he too scrutinized the door.
“Think they’re still in there?” Sam asked from behind Tommy. Goosebumps broke open on Tommy’s skin.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” the Conductor said as reached out his hand and pulled on the door.
The door opened without resistance as shards of shattered wood fell to the floor as the door slid open. The two men stared into the compartment, which was barely wide enough for Tommy to spread out his man-sized arms. The shade was drawn, so no light entered except thin traces of sunlight that slipped past the two men standing in the doorway.
Tommy felt an ominous feeling creep up his back. Even in the gloom, he could tell that the sleeping compartment was in a state of disorder and disarray. It was obvious that somebody had thoroughly, and aggressively searched the room.
“Let me get some light,” the Conductor said evenly as he stepped over misshapen objects strewn across the floor. He gripped the shade covering the window and threw it open with a sharp snap, though it only managed to slide halfway up the window. It was enough, however, for an exposing beam of light to flood the room and bring clarity to the chaos.
Tommy was right. Somebody had already been here. Doctor Pence’s belongings were stretched across the room. His duffel was upside down where the suspect had emptied it and cast it aside. The small mattress was halfway off the bed, and an assortment of loose papers and clothes scattered the floor. Even the pillows had been turned inside out as somebody went to great, and obviously hasty lengths to search the room.
“Think they found it?” Tommy asked.
“Found what, Harold?”
“Whatever it is they were looking for?” The Conductor looked around the room, his hand under his chin and a finger in his mustache.
“That is terribly uncertain. There is now way of knowing if they did or not. We are at a loss, unfortunately.” The Conductor fell silent. Tommy could feel hope ebbing out of him like smoke. What were they supposed to do, now? “Unless…”
“Unless?” Tommy said as his brow furrowed.
“Unless whatever it is they were looking for is still here for us to find. The only way of knowing is if we ourselves take a gander. Search the room top to bottom.”
Tommy felt queasy at the idea of wasting previous time on a frivolous search for what could practically be any object in the world. They could very well both find whatever it is they were supposed to find, and still not be aware of it. All the while, Pit River Bridge drew closer and closer. But, what other option did they have?
There was nothing else to do that would get them any closer to the truth.