“What in consternation!” The Conductor shouted in surprise.
Tommy couldn’t believe what he was seeing as a wave of dizziness almost doubled in him over. The body was riddled with open, oozing sores. A smell of decaying skin wafted in their direction, and Tommy immediately felt light headed nausea roll through his body.
“Oh, God!” Tommy yelled. “What happened to him?”
“This is most peculiar,” the Conductor conveyed as he held a handkerchief up to his nose. “Surely his body wouldn’t be already decomposing? Have you seen anything like this, Harold?”
Tommy wished he could make it unseen.
Suddenly, the door to the train car burst open with a loud bang as someone stumbled inside. Tommy immediately recognized it was one of the bagmen who’d first found the body. At first, no one moved as all three of them worked through their confusion.
“Sir…” The man dropped to his knees. His breathing came in sharp, ragged gasps and his face was riddled with sweat and fear.
“What’s the meaning of this?” The Conductor inquired sternly.
The man lifted his head to look up at them, and what Tommy saw made him take a step backwards. The man’s skin stretched across his face was soured. Protruding from the man’s neck were lesions, similar to the ones on the Doctor. Tommy could hear the Conductor suck in his breath sharply.
“Sir, I have been trying to find you not long after we left,” the man said in between ragged gasps. He was shaking as if cold was stabbing into his body. His arms were coated in blackened soars.
“At first, it was just queasiness, and I thought it was nerves, you see. But, not long after that I started getting these terrible wounds, sir.” He held out his arms which were a patchwork of agony. “They hurt—like knives,” he moaned. He gripped his stomach as a wave of pain rolled through his body. Tommy looked to the Conductor who wore a look of horror.
“What do I do, sir?” He asked as his face grew shallow. Furious thoughts worked behind the Conductor’s eyes.
“Are you sure you didn’t touch the Doctor?” He asked bluntly.
“No, sir. On account of my mother, God rest her soul. She once saw a dead man walking down the street, and when she touched him, came down with a terrible sickness. Died that night, sir.” Under any other circumstances, Tommy might have found the story funny. “Sir,” the man said weakly. “Am I going to die?” The concern on the man’s face darkened around his eyes.
“No, no. You’re not going to die, lad. You have a bad case of train sickness.” The Conductor flashed Tommy a brief glance, and it was enough to tell him to go along with him.
“Train sickness, sir?”
“Yes. It’s very rare, but it comes about during moments of great distress while onboard a train. My assumption is that you picked it up after you saw the body. Any right-minded man or woman would be quite shaken after seeing poor Doctor Perkins lying on the floor, and that’s when you got the malady.”
“Will it go away, sir? Can I be cured?”
“Of course, of course. What you need now is some rest. Officer Perkins and I have to speak to the Chief Engineer. The other gentleman who was with you—did he also get sick?”
“I don’t know, sir. We got separated not long after you sent us away.”
“I see. Well, you stay here and guard the body. Make sure no one touches the poor fellow. Understood?” His questions hung in the air and was met with a fever dripped nod.
Tommy was confused. They had just come from the Chief Engineer and he was a dead end. What was the Conductor thinking? They were running out of time! The Conductor gave him a furtive glance that suggested he had a plan and reluctantly Tommy followed him out into the open air.
As soon as he was out of the car, the Conductor immediately stepped in behind him. In his hand was his set of keys, and he quickly slid the key into a lock and turned. The door made an ominous click as the diseased man on the other side became a prisoner amongst the cargo and Doctor Pence’s decaying body. The Conductor turned and Tommy could see he was bearing a look of regret on his face. Once they were inside the next car, he turned to Tommy with a tragic gaze.
“I had no other choice,” he justified in a solemn whisper. Tommy could only nod in numb agreement. The weight of this new reality, this contagious reality, was heavy upon his chest.
“What monster did this?” Tommy wondered in a tone that was both fear and disbelief.
“That I do not know, but I have an idea who does. There is only one person who knows this train just as well as I do. He would have had access to the luggage car and the cargo. He would have been able to send those two men to their demise.”
Tommy’s mind worked through the truth. It wasn’t possible—rather he didn’t want it to be a possibility. But, could it be true? Could he have been wrong all along?
“You’re very clever,” spoke a commanding voice from the other end of the train car. The Conductor and Tommy both turned to face the owner. The Chief Engineer stood in the center of the aisle of an otherwise vacant lounge car. The empty seats turned eerily in place with low squeals. The man stood with his back straightened, no longer cowed over by the stuffy train engine. He’d lost his soured, bored look and adopted a smirk of a man who was in complete control. A terrifying truth struck Tommy.
Thomas Rice was the murderer.