“Alright. Sure. I’ll look…” Tommy turned to the bed which didn’t look very promising. “Right here, I guess.”
“Yes, yes. I’ll take a shot at these papers on the floor, and then at his duffel. Perhaps there is something that our perpetrator missed.”
“And I’ll stand out here. There’s no way I’m fitting in there, too,” Sam said with a snort. Tommy merely nodded and set about his pointless task. His fingers moved under the mattress and he lifted it with relative ease. Being a fully-grown man had its advantages compared to the scrawny kid he was in the real world. Or, at least, in his real world. It still didn’t make any sense to him, but he assumed he wasn’t going to live long enough to figure it all out.
As he pondered these thoughts, he set the mattress down and started to search the random clothes strewn across the bed. Behind him, he could hear the Conductor muttering to himself as the sound of paper punctuated his sentences. Eventually, Tommy turned and watched the Conductor. He had his pocket watch out and was rubbing its closed lid as his other hand shuffled through the papers. The Conductor meticulously examined each piece as he held it up into the light, tilting it at odd angles. He was more than thorough, and Tommy was reminded of someone else who was likewise just as thorough in his search for a clue—himself. He remembered all those long evenings going over clips from old newspapers, snippets from books written during the time of the crash, and studying topographic maps to find anything that would keep him going.
And it had kept him going. Now, here he was. Onboard the very train he’d spent so long to find. But, he was no nearer to clearing his family’s name than he was to figuring out this mystery. Somehow, he knew the two were linked. If he could find the murderer, surely, he could save the Rice legacy.
In a way, Tommy was glad to have the Conductor. The man was a stranger, sure, but Tommy felt oddly at ease with the man, despite the differences in time and understanding. At first, he felt bad for having to lie about the fact he was not actually the Conductor’s friend, Harold Perkins. But, the more he spent time with him, the more this falsified relationship made more sense to Tommy.
“How long have you been a Conductor?” Tommy asked as he rifled through the man’s laundry. He caught the whiff of old man cologne—like the kind his grandpa wore.
“You should know that, Harold,” the Conductor said with a chuckle.
“I forget sometimes,” Tommy said with a forced laugh.
“Six years this December. Something I found hard to believe. It was just yesterday I was a bagboy—loading luggage and taking orders from my superiors. Did I ever tell you how I got the job?”
“No. How did you?”
“It’s a funny story, really. I was on The Midnight at the time. We were running twelve hour shifts in the middle of the night from Washington to Southern California. This was before I met Margie, too, so I never minded the long hours working into the night. It was mostly men traveling home from business, and a relatively quiet passenger list. When everyone was asleep, I’d slip out to the last train car and stare up at the moon. It was amazing to me that no matter how far we traveled, the moon never got smaller. We could never outrun it.”
Tommy listened raptly. His voice brought a sense of comfort and warmth to Tommy that he found surprising and familiar. For a moment, Tommy forgot his fear.
“Well, one night not all the passengers fell asleep. In fact, a certain night loving passenger managed to get loose. Mr. Tinkles was his name—a white and black cat who got out of his cage.” Tommy could hear the humor starting to creep into his narration. “Now, we had a strict policy of no pets on board, but Mr. Tinkles’ owner was a well-known patron and a passenger who frequented The Midnight often. Her name was Gertrude Devereaux and over time, and after many donations, the staff on The Midnight turned a blind eye to Mr. Tinkles.” A sudden shadow cast over their conversation as Sam poked his head into the room. He said something before abruptly disappearing again, but Tommy didn’t catch it. He looked at the open doorway for a few seconds more before he turned his attention back to the Conductor.
“To Mr. Tinkles? Well, you see, Mr. Tinkles loved to climb. Now, on the night of the incident most will claim that he was after a mouse that he saw and was trying to defend the honor of the train, but personally I think he was trying to run away. Mrs. Devereaux liked to dress Mr. Tinkles up in small, ill-fitting outfits, and I don’t believe he much preferred that,” he said humorously. “So, he attempted a daring escape. He sprung from Mrs. Devereaux’s lap, sprinted down the length of the car, and slipped right past the Conductor who was standing in the open doorway. Much to everyone’s amazement, the rascal scampered up the face of the next car and disappeared over the edge of the roof.” Tommy could picture it in his head, and despite himself a smile broke open behind his beard.
“Did the Conductor get him down?”
“Oh no, no. Though the Conductor’s job is to take care of the passengers and to tend to their needs, this particular Conductor did not see it within his job description to go climbing on top of a train car. He cited all the health code violations that having such a pet on board ended up breaking, and even went as far as saying that the mangy animal was probably rabid and deserved to be put out of his misery. Of course, this did not bode well with Mrs. Devereaux who was adamant that her child be retrieved. When I saw how desperate she was for Mr. Tinkles, I knew I needed to help so I volunteered to climb up on top of the train and save Mr. Tinkles.” Even as he spoke, Tommy could feel nausea creep in his gut.
“Were you scared?”
“Oh, absolutely. I’m dreadfully terrified of heights. But, saving Mr. Tinkles wasn’t about me, so I climbed on up and got the old boy down before he could give us any more hassle. Mrs. Devereaux was so grateful and impressed and the next day I was the new Conductor. It wasn’t long after that I was appointed the Conductor aboard The Daylight. It’s been the best position I have ever held, too. I see so many faces, and many of them have become familiar. I spend more time with them than I do my own wife and son! But, I love the stories that people carry onto this train. It’s going to be a sad day when I transition into the next position…,” he said with intimate melancholy. “Aha!”
Tommy’s head snapped to attention as his pulse pounded in his ears.
“What is it? A clue?” Tommy could feel his heart beating in his ears. The Conductor’s face was vibrant with revelation. But, this vibrance fell just as quickly as it accumulated.
“Drat. Just a simple list for the market. The man seems to be very invested in buying a variety of pickled foods,” the Conductor said contemplatively. Tommy felt his hopes fall back down into the despair they’d crawled from. He went back to his own search, though the number of things he could root through was coming to a swift end. Just out of his reach was a shirt that was tucked in between the mattress and the wall. He leaned forward to retrieve it and caught a beam of sunlight across his face. Reflexively, Tommy shielded his eyes as he glanced towards the half-drawn shade.
Something caught his eye. Tommy stood and approached the black shade as he inspected it carefully. The shade itself was like any normal shade meant to block out the sun and give commuters a reprieve, but he was curious as to why it wasn’t going all the way up. Gently, he pulled on it just far enough so he could let it go and see if it would snap back into place completely. Again, it stopped halfway up.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Tommy asked.
“Do what, exactly?”
“Only close halfway?”
“Why, no. That would be most irregular. I assumed it got damaged when the culprit ransacked the room.” Tommy did, too. But, now, he wasn’t so sure. Cautiously, he pulled the shade all the way down again, and then lifted it up off the glass. With a flutter and a dull thud, an object fell at his feet.
Tommy stooped down and picked it up. The mysterious piece felt rough on his fingertips and fit neatly in his hand. As he brought the object into the light, he could see the pale color of parchment paper as it was wrapped around a slim, cylinder. A triumphant grin broke open upon his lips.
They’d finally found a clue.