It was just past two in the morning when the passenger train of the Foothill Express pulled through the town, not a single blow of its horn or light in its windows as it crawled to a stop on the tracks of the little community.
Severville was a town neither here nor there, simply a name on a map, a place to stop for gas, a blur of meager colorless buildings passed by on the highway on the way to somewhere else. Most drivers refused to slow for the local speed limit on the thoroughfare passed through the meager city limits, unconcerned with whatever sort called the town their home.
The other sets of eyes that fell upon Severville were from the conductors and riders of passing trains, similarly moving through without pause. The Rail Tours of the Foothill Express made sure that their weekly journeys would meet with the town while all of the well-paying passengers were sound asleep. When they awoke, they would find themselves in surroundings certainly more charming and fair. By all accounts, the stopping of the train that night should have never happened.
The lights began to flash at the crossing on Second Avenue, followed by the guardrails descending, but the regular, shrill call from the locomotive failed to pierce the night as it would usually. The sloppy drivers returning home from bars hoping to avoid DUI charges waited patiently, holding their eyes open, but the lethargic crawl of the neatly decorated passenger cars gave the impression that they would have to wait. The train eventually stopped completely, the foggy headlights of the idling vehicles painting orange spots on the dim train like the running lights on the floor of a dark theater.
Despite the late hour, the impasse on the two-lane road caused a backup long enough to reach the next block down. Those with waning patience backed out and u-turned the best they could in hopes that they would find the next crossing down on eighth free for passage. Out of the small collection of sober drivers, at least one called the local emergency number to complain to the police about the injustice of the gaudy train blocking their way through town.
Robert Farva rubbed his eyes open to the sight of the brunette on the other half of the bed, her bare back facing him uncovered. He had drifted off, but certainly not for too long. Something had awoken him, it was the trilling of his cell phone’s ringer. The tone was muffled inside of the pocket of his slacks, strewn on the motel floor hastily. It grew louder as he extracted it from the clothes and flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Detective, sorry about calling at a time like this,” Schultz grumbled at him through the speaker.
Farva turned back and glanced at the red digital clock face on the alarm at the opposite side of the bed. “No, no. Not at all. Something come up?”
“Come down to the rail crossing at second. There’s something you should see.”
“Got it, I’m on my way,” Farva said, clapping the phone back closed. Still holding it in one hand, he felt around for his boxers on the cheap, scratchy bedspread. He finally set down the phone to slide them on, then find his feet through the holes of the previously discarded slacks.
The brunette sat up as Farva flicked on the bathroom light in preparation to relieve himself. “Work?”
He answered after the flush of the toilet and a quick wash of his hands and face, a stroking back of his dark hair. “I guess. The chief needs me for something.”
Pulling her knees up and tugging on the bedspread, she looked up at him with eyes that lit up the room. “Well, you still have twenty minutes left. I can let those roll over if there happens to be a next time.”
Farva looked at himself in the dim mirror by the door one last time, pulling on his jacket and then patting himself down to make sure his wallet, keys, and phone were still firmly in his pockets. “Yeah, maybe. You better remember because I won’t.”
By the time the door clicked behind him, he had the phone out again to speed dial the first of a handful of numbers. The answering machine picked up after several rings as expected, and played his own voice back at him. “…say what you want to say after the tone… beep.”
“I won’t be home tonight, babe, after all,” he said, knowing the wife would just be able to hear the speaker sounding off his voice from the living room. “Something came up, the chief is having me come downtown. Maybe I’ll be back for breakfast before you leave for work. Love you. Bye.”
The detective had burned through two cigarettes by the time he had reached downtown, allowing the smoke out through the window and into the chilly night air. Detective was little more than a decorative title. The job description was given to him after an early retirement from what Severville deemed to be its police force, a total of eight employees. Nine, officially, when he had served, but the pocket knife wound to the thigh by one of the local junkies had been enough to leave him ‘disabled’— a label made by the state, not himself, surely. Unwilling to begin sucking up government handouts at the age of thirty, he opted for the long-unfilled position of Severville’s detective, a job that had since mostly involved paperwork, to his chagrin.
The callout to the tracks had probably some paperwork to go with it as well— an accident with the train, such as a stuck car, even a suicide. It wouldn’t have been the first time. The flashing red and blue lights were his sign to slow and creep his old Lincoln down the side of the crumbling road. With one last suck on the dying cigarette, he exited the car, flicking the butt down and scanning the dim area for the silhouettes of other officers.
One officer was guiding impatient drivers back in the direction they came. Schultz was awaiting the detective at the crossing while at least one other squad car’s worth of officers was scanning the long length of the train from the outside. The chief’s eyes remained closed for longer than they were open, but the mustached man was quick to shake his head to attention as Farva stepped up, hands in his jacket pockets.
“Who offed themselves this time, Hank?”
The chief didn’t expose his usual distanced remorse, neither a half-hearted shrug nor stroking of his whiskered chin. “Wish it were that easy this time, Farve. If the coroner just had to peel someone off the tracks, I wouldn’t have to be out of bed at a time like this.” He glanced back to the train, its rearmost car not too far from being able to pass the crossing.
One of the electrical boxes usually locked up by the crossing guards had been left open, wires yanked free from whatever panel usually controlled the flashing red lights and piercing chimes that warded off ill-attentive drivers.
“Did it break down, then?” Farva asked, gazing down the line to the locomotive barely visible in the weak moonlight. “All the passengers must be happily asleep. Gonna be mad when they wake up behind schedule, though.”
Not a light was lit in the cabins of the passenger cars. The strobing of the patrol car lights lit up the foggy windows in alternating flashes of red and blue. “Not a one from what we can see,” Schultz huffed, turning back to the train. “Side doors stuck closed, so no one in or out. But the kicker is that it looks like there wasn’t even anyone at the controls, either.”
“No driver?” Farva hummed.
“The engineer,” Schultz corrected. “There’s a conductor, too. Normally, at least. My son is in love with trains at the moment, he’d have a cow if you called it a train driver.”
“Whatever the hell they’re called. So, someone stole the train and they ran off when it ran out of fuel?”
Schultz shook his head. “I managed to get the number for their home agency from the 411. Phone rang for a hell of a long time, though.”
The chief clicked his tongue and rolled his head. “Yeah, well, this is one such scheduled trip. Meaning, this train was supposed to be full up with people. And they’re all gone. Not a single one seen about here, shined lights in enough windows— not much to see.”
The detective dragged his feet about the paved area of road leading up to the tracks. “I don’t suppose we can get it moved, at least?”
“They’ll have a technician or whatever out tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Says they might be able to move it if everything is working as it should, and that’s if. But the shit we’ll see if these missing folk… all them and their families and their money… what sort of story are we supposed to make up?” he trailed off, grumbling.
Farva ducked under the guard rail and stepped onto the gravel, the loose material crunching under his loafers. The line that constituted the edge of the town was not too far in the direction that the train had come. If they bailed somewhere before here, Severville would be off the hook. He stared at the ground and his feet, thinking, when the chief finally caught up after him.
“Look, Farve, we’ve had a look now all up and down the train, nothing but hobo shit-piles and used needles. We’ll leave it to you to head up inside and give it a once-over. Just to make sure there’s no foul play.”
The detective stared up at the windows, as dark as the station’s coffee, and shrugged. “You got a flashlight?”