Dwight Hilson

She's All Yours

 

    Last time we were hit by one of these things—a “Blizzurcane” the jerkoff forecaster called it before my satellite conked out—well, things got out of hand, and by morning someone had disappeared. Wasn’t my fault, not really anyhow, but I bought a pistol just the same, a HK nine-millimeter, which I kept loaded in the glove box of my crappy old ’07 Blazer for easy access if needed while making my rounds.
    All you had to do was peek outside to know this storm would be a genuine Rocky Mountain nor’easter, one capable of piling up fifteen, thirty inches of snow, maybe more, and whip the high country with sixty-, maybe one-hundred-mile-per-hour gusts. Snow or no snow, though, I was on the clock, so I figured why not make my rounds early, get out ahead of any trouble, so to speak.
    Railroad crews had already lined up in the yard, throttled down their trains, and headed for cover, which, of course, on this desolate coal spur meant the hotel. The sign said Comfort Inn, but that was only a lure for tourists when occupancy was low; the place was actually owned by the Union Pacific, three floors, maybe fifty rooms, built specially to rest trainmen, track crews, any employee with valid ID and a need. And there were now five consists holed up in the yard, each with five or more locomotives and a hundred black coal hoppers, all sharing the yard with every imaginable assortment of track maintenance equipment—the crews celebrating a rare paid snow day in the hotel.
    It was my job to keep an eye on the hotel, the train yard, look out for trouble and take note of needed repairs, call the Denver office to requisition supplies. Facilities Supervisor was my title, but Glorified Janitor was more accurate. Company said they’d done me a favor, could’ve fired my ass instead of sending me to the boondocks at two-thirds pay for one last shot to earn my pension. It was the union, though, that really saved my ass, all those dues finally serving a purpose. Sure, I’d violated a couple rules, but I wasn’t the only locomotive jock to ever give a cab ride to a lady—hell, wasn’t that what seniority was all about? Of course, I should’ve concocted a less conspicuous way to get the gal off my damn locomotive. Pride can make you stupid. Desire, too, can fuck everything up, and then you look over your shoulder and you’re a disgraced trainman banished to a godforsaken corner of nowhere. 
    It wasn’t all bad though. After the demotion I couldn’t have cared less when the missus—now ex-missus—dumped me to stay in Omaha, and besides, our daughter was grown and not far off in Denver. What’s more, no one bothered you up here, fishing was good in summer, and, ironically enough, there were plenty of messed-up babes, housewives and loners, when you needed short-term feminine companionship. 
    Given that it was less than a block from my trailer, I figured I’d start my inspection at the hotel. I downed a couple quick pops from a bottle of JD and parked the Blazer out back, close to the rear door. The lounge—a dozen stained couches and chairs plus a fridge and microwave—sat mercifully quiet, a good thing, given this was where the trouble started a year ago. A few of the spur’s regular grizzled trainmen were spread out and sunken in chairs, waiting for a turn at God knows what, and across the way, Herb, the desk manager, sat yakking on his phone. I gave him a quick nod and ducked into the elevator to head to the third floor to start my floor-by-floor loop down. 
    The stink of pot and cigarettes filled the hall, not enough to set off smoke alarms though, and I wandered slowly to the rear stairwell, taking in the steady gurgle of laughter and moans, mostly coming from the usual assortment of sketchy girls, women too—fat, thin, alkies, meth-whacked—who showed up in droves when train crews were in town, all expecting some sort of profit. I’d be lying, of course, if I said I wasn’t listening for Rania, hoping to hear her unmistakable accent, maybe see her again, even though I hadn’t a clue what I’d do if I did. Didn’t matter, I made it back to ground level without hearing her. 
    For the moment, at least, the lights were on, plumbing worked, and no one was screaming in agony. Time to hightail it over to inspect the train yard before everything was snowed in.
    I pushed the rear door open, and a ferocious wind gust immediately slammed it back at my face. “You’re shitting me,” I yelled into swirling snow, my Blazer already impersonating an igloo. I briefly considered checking for keys lodged in the visor of a reasonably cleared-off UP Hy-Railer truck not far away in the shadows, but reconsidered; those were reserved for track crews, and with my luck some asshole might write me up as a thief. 
    I scraped off the Blazer, my gloves a holey mess, and then needed to pump the engine for what seemed ten minutes before the belts stopped whining and snowflakes melted in defeat on the windshield. Halfway on my crawl toward the Kum & Go convenience mart this side of Route 133, my wiper blades began to squeal like Styrofoam and visibility returned to near zero. 
    Windblasts screamed all around me, and for a moment I felt like the ball inside a giant whistle; then a blinding flash lit up the night. I jammed my foot on the brake and counted—one, two, three…KABOOM! The Blazer shuddered, and simultaneously my dashboard CB radio crackled with a State Police update: “Rabbit Ears pass remains closed…Highway 133 closed below Oak Creek…” 
    Up ahead, snow whorled in the Kum & Go’s canopy fluorescents, the place looking like a spaceship kicking up rocket wash on a Jupiter moon. Lights were off inside, but suddenly a single pair of headlights pulled out from under the canopy and headed toward me. I strained to catch the make and model as it passed—but could only identify it as a big dark SUV. 
    I stopped at a pump and proceeded to slam ice chunks off the wipers, snow blowing down my collar. “Fuck me,” I screamed. 
A voice shouted back through the wind, “Sid…you’re not my type!” 
    It took me a second to locate the source, Orv Brody. He was standing outside his store, all bundled up in the shadows next to his black F-150 pickup, which idled nearby, tires caked white with snow, but otherwise fully defrosted, steam puffing out its exhaust pipe.
    “You shuttin’ down?” I called out. 
    “Why…you gonna buy something?”
    “How ’bout wiper antifreeze?” 
    “Not even my wife’s spit’s gonna work tonight.” Orv laughed.
    I pinched my fingers along a wiper blade, but only managed to fill the holes in my gloves with wet ice. “Shit,” I said.
    “Fresh out,” Orv barked.
    “How ’bout gloves, got those?”
    Orv nodded. “You checkin’ the yard in this crap?” he said, and for a short second looked skeptically into the darkness across the highway.
    The wind momentarily settled, and you could hear a deep, resonant rumble; locomotives, a bunch of them, all idling away in the train yard hidden behind a stand of trees on the other side of the highway. God, how those machines vibrated in your soul, a constant thrum, always on, humming at idle even when nowhere to go. On a still day those bad-boys set diesel fumes wafting down Main Street, a stinking mess to some, but trainmen, engineers certainly—even an ex-one—found the odor sweet as perfume. 
    “That’s the plan,” I answered as cheerily as I could muster. 
    “Okay then, let’s get you fixed up.” Orv unlocked and held the mart’s door open just as a sharp gust tried to tear it off the hinges. 
    A small drift followed me inside and joined footprint puddles tracking past the counter and down an aisle. “Sorry about that,” I apologized.
    “Gave up a while ago,” Orv said, and pointed at a wall display. “Gloves.”
    I settled on calfskin lined with flannel and dumped the soaked pair into a garbage can. 
    Orv chuckled. “Guess it’ll be busy at the inn tonight…I’m damn near cleared out of condoms.”
 “Safe sex, Orv, isn’t that what they call it?”
    “Wouldn’t know it if it bit me on the ass.”
    “No wonder you’re so popular.”
    “You think maybe that’s why I’m lonely?” Orv flashed a wide grin. “Say,” he continued, “you see that Yukon just cruise by?”
    I stared at him, figuring he meant the black thing I’d just passed.
    “Girl inside, real looker, rolls down the window and shouts if I’ve seen some beater blue Subaru roll into town.” 
    I didn’t say a thing, but my stomach lurched with fear.
    “Think there was a guy driving,” Orv said. “Couldn’t see him though.” He went silent for a moment, then added, “Well, okay…you be careful out there.”
    “Huh?” I replied, my mind lost—Rania had a blue Subaru, had to be her, here in town, and someone was searching for her. “Yeah…you too,” I finally said, and aimed the Blazer across Route 133 toward the howling dark of the train yard.
    All my instincts said to make a U-turn, go find Rania, fast. But then I glanced back at the mart and saw Orv standing inside like a statue, watching me; then the lights switched off. It was weird, spooky, and Orv’s blank expression shot a chill through me. Was he keeping tabs on me? Seemed so, and, inexplicably, I couldn’t escape a sensation suggesting I better do what I had said. One quick pass, I thought, and waved at his dark silhouette. Didn’t see any return.
    Crossing the highway, my headlights spilled over an oddly fresh set of tire tracks on the yard access road, which was odd since the last crew shuttle was an hour earlier, and with the way it was dumping, the tracks should’ve already filled in. Still, I lined up on the white troughs, glad for a target to help stay centered on the narrow bridge that crossed the ice-clogged stream paralleling the yard tracks. 
    The Blazer dipped hard off the bridge, and I swung a sharp left through the open yard gate just as another lightning flash lit up five behemoth locomotives, three pointing south, two more beyond aiming north. Took a second for my eyes to adjust back to the dark, within which five locomotive headlamps shone faint, snow-flecked cones into the night. 
    As I crawled closer, the ground began to tremble like an earthquake. Then another wind gust rocked the SUV, and once again, I was snow-blind. This is nuts, I thought. No one in their right mind would be out in this mess, not even the numb-brained teenagers who too often liked to play hide-and-seek between trains. 
    I slowed alongside the first SD-70, a late model Electro-Motive Division beast; its engineer cab frosted and dark, its deep hum making my seat feel like a massage chair. One big loop, that’d be it, down along this train—hell, only a hundred cars long—then, assuming the track crossing wasn’t drifted over, it’d be a quick return alongside the easternmost northbound train. After that, no one—not Orv or anyone else—could say I hadn’t done my job.
    I lined up with the recently furrowed tracks and accelerated, felt the tires spin, then found good grip. Soon the engine thrum faded to wind, and I concentrated on staying straight, aligned with the seemingly endless line of black hopper cars passing on my right. I rushed past a mid-train, helper locomotive and slid sideways, my bumper kicking up clumps of snow onto the windshield. I was probably going too fast, and visibility sucked, but I was almost to the end of the train, could feel the nearing throb of the two more locomotives, dark hulking brutes, their cab lights extinguished, everything normal. I hurried past them and my headlights picked up the track crossing reflector poles, exactly where I expected them. I spun the steering wheel hard to the right, and the Blazer bucked like a bronco over each of the five sets of tracks, loco headlamps glowing overhead. I kept up my speed and let her drift like a racecar as I swung around to the leeward side of the farthest train.
    Big mistake. 
    The rear wheels kept sliding and then a wicked bump lifted me off the seat, and a huge mass of snow thumped over the hood and windshield, the wipers clicking uselessly. I jammed the transmission into reverse, but the wheels only whined in protest. Breathe, I told myself and tried again, rocking the vehicle—forward, reverse—four times just to straighten the front wheels. The windshield was blanketed though, and the SUV still felt buried; no choice but to put the new gloves to work. I grabbed a scraper and pushed out the door.
    I’d somehow done a one-eighty; the Blazer now faced north, just like the two SD-70s rumbling nearby. I swept off the hood and as I scrambled around to the front, another intense blast of snow broke over the locomotives like a wave, cascading a fresh layer over everything I’d just brushed. I threw up my hands and glared accusingly at the diesels. And that’s when I saw the light.
    For a second I thought I was seeing things, but there it was again: a dim yellow glow inside the second slave locomotive’s cab window.
    “What the—” I said to no one. Some idiot trainman must’ve forgotten to turn it off, I reasoned. But that made no sense—it was a helper loco after all; there wouldn’t have been a trainman in there in the first place. My stomach somersaulted in alarm. I tossed the scraper inside and reached for the glove box. No, not again, I thought, my hand shaking as I pulled out my pistol. It felt cold, and heavy, and with my new gloves, my index finger fit too tight inside the trigger guard. I stuffed it inside my jacket pocket, left the SUV idling.
    The snow was now thigh-high, deeper in spots, heavy as frozen oatmeal. I kept my feet low to the ground to plow through, but near the locomotive’s rear step, a waist-deep drift blocked my progress. I thought I might fall and stay frozen until spring, but I managed to barrel through and pull myself up onto the metal walkway alongside the cowling. The engine idled noisily and my feet slid underneath me, but I stayed focused on the pale, flickering cab light and sidestepped slowly to the steps leading up to the cab door. Pressing my back against the locomotive sheet metal, I gripped the pistol, and then shuddered with a horrible sense of déjà vu. 
    Tendrils of frost, ice, condensation obstructed the glass window, but there was one slightly clear patch. I brought my eyes up to the window and struggled to peek inside. The cab seemed empty though, no one sitting in the operating chairs, the dome light casting dull warmth. But then I shifted my angle and I saw a body curled in a ball on the floor. 
    I shook the door handle—locked—and pounded the glass, but there was no movement.
    “Shit, shit, shit,” I yelled and rushed back along the walkway, down the steps. I raced for the locomotive’s nose door—it’d be easier to pry open—or shoot out the lock without hitting the body with a ricochet. Wind shrieked overhead and the snow thick. I waded to just short of the front steps when my legs spilled forward into an already furrowed pathway. Someone else could be in there, I thought, a killer maybe. 
    Terrified, I reached for the door handle. It clicked open, the door squealing ajar. 
    I froze, listening, then said quietly, “Hello?” I said it again, louder, but heard only a dull echo. My whole body tingled with fear, but I crabbed up the steps and took in a deep breath. Then I rushed forward, swinging the pistol side to side. 
    Nothing, no one, only the body curled on the floor, an unconscious woman, who I now saw wore only a red, tight tank top and a black leather miniskirt, high heels too. The air was warmer than outside but still heavy and cold, a faint scent of perfume and sweat—she was bound with plastic ties at her ankles and wrists—her mouth gagged by a navy blue bandanna.
    She was Rania—my Rania, and I couldn’t breathe. 
    Her neck was still warm, a light pulse, and when I wiped her long raven hair off her face, I saw that her cheek was swollen and red, a crinkle of dry blood on her scalp. 
    I yanked the Leatherman from my belt and cut off the bandanna, familiar, like one of mine, then heard a moan and quickly sliced her ankles and wrists free. Wind roared over the cab as a small scroll of paper fell to the cab floor with the plastic ties. 
    I stared at it, felt dizzy, and with shaking hands unrolled the paper. The words were written in pencil, hard block letters, and they said, “SHE’S ALL YOURS!” 


***


    It was one year earlier, after a strained lunch where my daughter insisted my selfishness only hurt myself, that I figured I’d kill some time in downtown Denver, let rush-hour traffic thin out before heading back up into the mountains. Honestly, I hadn’t intended on blowing a wad of cash on strippers, but then again I never expected some perky, smoking-hot babe to thrust a Free-Admission card for Club Boheme into my hand almost the second after I stepped out of the Blazer. 
    Three beers, a plate of wings, and two shots of Cuervo Gold later, Rania said she loved trains. Then she whispered in my ear how much she’d wanted to “ride a locomotive,” as if it was as easy as straddling a horse. At the time that’d seemed funny, mainly because she was putting on her dress—more like a frayed black chemise from a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog—after riding me for a pretty energetic three-song private-room dance. I’d told her I was an engineer, lying, of course, but given that truth was mostly optional in a gentlemen’s club, I didn’t give it much thought. “Okay, sure, we can do that,” I told her. “But you’ll need to come up to the mountains.”
    Rania smiled and bent over me, then let the tip of her tongue trace the crevices of my ear and cooed, “You have maybe place for me to stay?” exaggerating her well-practiced Eastern European accent.
    “Sure.” I chuckled and wrote down my cell number, never expecting she’d call. But damn she was gorgeous, and firm, her hands freely guiding mine in violation of club rules, her moans seeming to beg the private-room guard—a sequoia-thick guy perched only steps away—to come in and shut her, us down. As I drove the dark roads away from civilization, I felt a wicked stab of desire and actually considered heading back to Denver to offer Rania everything I owned. 
    Luckily, the fever passed by the time I reached the Yampa valley, replaced by a giddy tingle of relief for so narrowly avoiding disaster…again. 
    A few months later, in mid-winter, the weather report bordering on doom, my cell phone lit up with its Caller Unknown message, and against all better judgment, I answered.
    She arrived the afternoon before that storm, but brought a friend, another amply curved sweetheart with endless legs and a sour, heavy-lidded expression. “Choo choo,” Rania said by way of a greeting and laughed as they unfolded out of a too tiny, faded blue Subaru. “You take us on big train ride, yes?” she added, more command than question. “Oh, this is Paola…nice girl,” she said, and then they smiled at each other as if enjoying an inside joke.
    This was clearly an embarrassment of riches, but I knew from experience that too much of a good thing could be wildly perilous. Still, Rania was even more alluring than I’d remembered in the dim, alcohol-filtered light of Club Boheme. The presence of Paola, though, or whatever her real name was, almost certainly flagged their visit as something beyond simple tourism. I tried to recollect how much I’d told her about the town, the rail yard, the so-called Comfort Inn, but felt a sagging realization that they already knew more than enough—or maybe just enough—to be dangerous. One thing was certain: My compact, cozy trailer wasn’t what these two had in mind. 
    “So what do you say,” I asked Herb at the hotel’s front desk, the girls behind me. “Think we can find a room for my friends?”
    Herb’s eyes damn near exploded. He was used to the comings and goings of local girls determined to siphon off whatever they could get from defenseless train crews, but these ladies were from another league entirely. His face reddened with a shock of shyness, but after a couple seconds, ol’ Herb started to grin.
    Technically, what with a giant storm approaching, Herb was supposed to keep all rooms open for UP employees, but if push came to shove, there wasn’t a trainman alive who wouldn’t happily double up, knowing that these two roamed the hallways. “Let me see what I can do,” he said, pretending to study his computer screen. “Why, of course…Room 224, nice and quiet… This going on your account, Sid?” he asked, adding a slight wink. He put them on the second floor, rear, a room right next to stairs, easy come, easy go, a room whose door, I knew, was in view of a security camera near the EXIT sign. 
    While the girls got settled, I moved the Blazer out back, closer to a favored parking place should a quick escape become advisable. Advance flurries were steady now, the flakes swirling like moths underneath street lamps. Just as I set the parking brake, the familiar long—long—short—long blasts of a locomotive air horn signaled a train throttling down into the yard. Goddamn, that was a melancholy sound, and I sat there recollecting how sweet it felt to control all that power, all the unstoppable hurtling mass, to witness the train tracks vanishing up ahead, and to experience the eerie sense of the land trying to get out of the way as you thundered past. I snapped out of it with the thought that if I wasn’t careful some pencil pusher might now accuse me of pimping for the very guys who’d taken my job.
    Back inside, Rania and Paola had already taken over the inn’s first-floor lounge area, both of them boogying to an old-school boom box blaring Kenny Chesney, or Toby Keith, some sort of country rock. A couple dozen engineers, trackmen, and conductors had emerged from their rooms, along with a half-dozen pretty scuzzy so-called barmaids, each with corduroy-creased upper lips twitching suspiciously as they lamely attempted to match the newcomers gyration for gyration. One of them was Toni, a tattoo-sleeved, dirty-blonde biker chick regular from State Bridge who usually had an eight ball or two for sale or share. She split her time between bartending in Kremmling, or Craig, or Walden, and God only knows what. She’d been a regular at the hotel long before I showed up and, while always cordial, gave my limited supervisory authority the same consideration as she did a No-Smoking sign. With steely eyes, Toni nodded at me, then quickly turned back to glare at the new competition. 
    The lounge was happening, though. Bottles clinked, shot glasses tilted, and ever-louder whoops and hollers erupted like a chorus; I was fairly sure puke would fill plastic shrub planters by midnight. 
    Rania was putting on a show for some trainman she didn’t even know. I tried to catch her attention, and for a brief second thought maybe I had—a quick smile, lips pursed as if to blow a kiss—but then she looked away and was lost in the music, her hips and hair jerking in opposite directions.
    That stung, and left me wandering the perimeter, alone and uncertain, yet increasingly annoyed. Over the years I’d learned it best to accept whatever you got rather than to want what you couldn’t get, but at the moment both added up to a big fat nothing. When Rania called I’d allowed myself a few moments—more like half a day—of fevered anticipation, and, trust me, I didn’t expect anything for free, but now she was ignoring me altogether. I’d set her up for fun and profit but felt like I’d been set up in the process. 
    Outside this impromptu free-for-all, the snowfall picked up, wind too, and ice crystals peppered the increasingly fogged windows. Across the room, Herb gave a high sign for me to join him. 
    “Couple of the girls asked me where our guests came from,” he said and, without taking his eyes off the action, surreptitiously handed over a full pint of Jim Beam. 
    “What’d you tell ’em?” I said, and slugged down two quick jolts. 
    “Told ’em it sure beats me all to hell,” Herb said, flicking his eyebrows with feigned innocence. “Can’t say they believe me though,” he added, his voice now a touch more serious.
    “Yeah, hadn’t really considered that,” I replied, another gulp of bourbon turning acidic with the thought. 
    “Consequences,” Herb said, observation and warning all rolled into one. “That pint’s on the house by the way,” he added. 
    I looked out at the scene, noticing how for every trainman getting all flush and limber, like say Duke Evengrade—one of the more regular coal spur throttle jockeys who at the moment pawed Paola like she was a tabby—there was another sitting wide-eyed and silent like Jess Barton, your basic pasty-skinned, impatient-for-promotion fireman now picking at his beer bottle with an expression frozen between outrage and stiff-boner longing. 
    I took another hard pull on the Jim Beam as yet another fierce gust buffeted the inn. The outer front door suddenly sucked open with enough force to simultaneously pop open the inner. “Damn,” Herb cried, and a reverse windblast slapped both doors shut with the sharp clank of a shotgun bolt. That brought stars to my eyes, and I steadied myself against the counter.
    “Well now, here we go,” Herb said, studying his security camera monitor. “Ka-ching, ka-ching.”
    My vision cleared and I scanned the lounge—Rania was gone, one of the engineers too. But Toni scowled at me, eyes filled with venom even as she butt-grinded some nameless trackman. 
    “Guess I’d best do my rounds,” I said, as if doing my job was what I had in mind. 
    Herb nodded, but was otherwise distracted, his eyes darting back and forth to the monitor as he busily jotted down notes.
    I decided to trot up the hotel’s front stairway, which after four or five shots was a pretty bad idea. By the time I reached the third floor, my heart yammered in my ears, and after letting out a long, deep breath, I took a thirsty swig. The muted sounds of TVs and music swirled out of seemingly every room, a smattering of laughter too, no shrieks of passion or pain though. I laughed to myself, thinking how I was the closest thing to security around, yet didn’t have a clue what I’d do if I heard someone lose their shit. 
    I wandered down the hall and into the stairwell, nodding at the camera—just to keep Herb on his toes—as I exited the floor. The door sprang shut behind me, its slam echoing eerily, and as I looked down, the hard gray steps began to double, triple, and sway from side to side. I grabbed the banister for dear life. Then a door opened below me. Whispered laughter filled the shaft, and I heard Rania’s heavy accent say, “Maybe we take train to Denver, yes?” A deep voice answered, “Well, how ’bout we warm her up first,” then laughed. That’d be the engineer, a pretty girl tempting him to break the rules, and damn if I didn’t fill with unreasonable jealousy. I leaned against the wall and eased down until a sudden whoosh of freezing cold and snow swirled up the stairwell and a door slammed shut. 
    Shit, they’ve lost their minds—they’re actually going outside? I thought and hurried down to a ground-floor window where I spied two bundled figures scrambling inside a UP maintenance truck. No, no, I need to stop this—now, I may have shouted in a panicked blur as headlights came on and wipers started to slap against windshield ice and snow. I remember feeling confused, desperate, but also ready to run out in pursuit. Then my hand touched the freezing doorknob and I recoiled. My coat, shit, I need my coat. 
    I watched in stunned silence as the truck disappeared in a sudden, violent horizontal blast of snow. But then the wind settled, and I felt totally helpless as its headlights inched toward Main Street.
    I staggered into the lounge to find my coat, but voices, music, the smell of smoke, sweat, microwave pizza suddenly overwhelmed my senses. A body brushed past me—it was Paola…was she smiling?—her arm trailed behind, and a man grasped her hand like it was a lifeline. “Gonna lose your chance, Sid,” the guy said. It was Duke, his face refusing to focus, and then they vanished around a corner. My chest pounded and I pulled the pint from my back pocket. “Gonna share that?” a voice asked, another body pressing into me. It was Toni. “Looks like your girlfriends abandoned you,” she rasped, her hand now rubbing my thigh, the dull sensation searching upward. 
    “I…uhh.” I couldn’t think. Toni took the bottle, kicked back a gulp, her hand cupped warm on my crotch.
    “Come on, Sid,” she said into my ear. “I think you owe me.” Toni held the bottle to my lips with her free hand and tilted it up like a baby bottle.
    I felt woozy, but closed my eyes and drank anyway, helpless despite an urgent need to flee. She lowered the bottle and smiled, leading me to an empty chair. My legs seemed to buckle, the cushions soft, a relief. Herb was laughing in the distance—at me? No, couldn’t be, I thought, and then Toni straddled me, her hips pinning me to the chair. “Now why did you go invite those two?” she asked teasingly, but then started to grind all her weight down.
    “I didn’t,” I pleaded, her hip bones digging into me, and her tattoos—naked bodies, snakes, dragons—suddenly seeming to writhe across her skin. 
    “But…” she hesitated, then whispered into my ear, “I don’t believe you.”
    I couldn’t breathe and my throat felt on fire, and then, almost like an apparition, I saw my coat slumped on a chair across the lounge. “Toni,” I said. “Stop it.”
    She glared down at me, her face enraged, and I tensed in anticipation of another ball-crushing gyration. But then she smiled and, lifting her full weight off me, began to swivel her butt slowly. “But don’t you think, Sidney,” she said, “I deserve something anyway?”
    I scrambled to pull a twenty from my pocket, anything to get her to leave me alone. I hadn’t actually invited Rania, and certainly not her friend, but I understood that in Toni’s eyes I was no less responsible. That’s when I remembered Rania had driven off to the train yard. 
    Toni stuffed the bill down the front of her T-shirt and leaned forward. Her breath smelled of rancid smoke and booze, and she forced her lips against mine. I tried to push her away, but she held her ground and hissed, “Now get rid of ’em.”
    That’s enough, I thought and, without realizing the force, grabbed her arms and simultaneously jerked up, fiercely bucking her off my lap. 
    She went flying, arms akimbo, and let out an astonished cry before landing sideways, her head hitting the lounge carpet with a thud. “You all saw it…he tried to kill me!” she screamed, furiously clambering to her knees.
    Herb’s smile was gone, and a few of the other assorted folks glanced over, but then just as quickly looked away, anxious to get on with their shenanigans. I pushed myself out of the chair, snatched my coat, and rushed out of the lounge. 
    The next moments were fuzzy, but I somehow made it into my Blazer, got it started, and blindly crawled down Main Street before thinking, What the hell just happened? The memory of Toni sprawled on the floor sent a sickening wave of nausea pushing up my throat. She wasn’t hurt, but there were witnesses, and none of them had heard her threaten me, which was what she’d done…right? A hard gust of snow-wind cycloned around the SUV and shook it like a toy. And what do you think you’re doing anyway? 
    Even wasted it struck me that Rania knew what she was doing, making money, obviously, and so what if some dumb-shit engineer wanted to show off his throttle in the middle of a blizzard. I knew uncontrollable and unreasonable urges were conspiring against me, and yet I still couldn’t stop. I had to find her.
    I rolled past the Kum & Go, its pumps appearing like square snowmen, then continued across the highway, the deep, resonant thrum of idling locomotives reassuring as I turned in to the train yard. Snowfall already exceeded a foot and was coming down thicker than ever, yet I could make out the hulking masses of three, maybe four SD-70s. No cab lights were on, though, that would’ve been too easy, and, anyway, I knew any halfway intelligent trainman would use some discretion when breaking rules, even under these conditions. I drove down the length of the train, the Blazer fishtailing all the way toward the north end of one hundred snow-blanketed coal hoppers. 
    Then, as I approached the end of the train, dim lights began to blink through lulls in the wind. It made sense—they were in the trailing locomotive, as far away from civilization as possible, its cab just as cozy as the lead unit—that’s where I’d have gone. I turned off the headlights and slowed to a stop not far behind the UP maintenance truck. Now what? I hadn’t a clue, but still skulked my way along the catwalk toward the locomotive cab. 
    I made it to the steps leading up to the side cab door when the entire machine suddenly lurched to life. A deafening roar enveloped everything, and a severe vibration loosened my grip on the handrail. Fuck, this guy was just showing off, letting her feel the power—his power. 
    My feet began to slip out from under me, and I grabbed hold for dear life, certain this guy was stupid enough to let Rania yank the air horn. But then the engine calmed, back to idle, and I heard laughter, Rania’s laughter, seep out of the cab.
    I crept closer, up the steps one at a time. The door window was frosted around the edges, but the center was clear. I could see her, sitting in the engineer’s chair, her coat open, low-cut T-shirt, skin showing. She swiveled around and pulled the engineer in between her legs. “My big, crazy trainman,” she said, and reached for his neck, guiding his face to her chest. I saw Rania reach her hand down to his waist. That’s when I became overwhelmed by shame, a sense of failure, inadequacy; I’d become nothing more than a peeping Tom—
    Then she suddenly looked up and stared straight at me, her eyes locking onto mine through the freezing glass. 
    And she screamed.


***


    I cradled Rania’s head as I laid her on my bed. There was a grapefruit-size bump underneath a crusty patch of dried blood on her hair. And her cheek didn’t look too good either, sporting a fist-sized circle of swollen, soon to be purple, gray-red skin. She’d been clocked good, never knew what hit her. 
    Somehow I had managed to get her—damn near naked—through the snow quickly, into my Blazer, and back through the yard to my trailer. It was all pretty hazy, but I remembered following a set of slightly snowed-in tire tracks up the length of the train before hurtling past the darkened Kum & Go and, nearly exhausted, carrying her near-frozen body over my shoulder and inside. 
    She was breathing, but felt cold to the touch, and without thinking, I eased off her T-shirt and skirt, the rest too. Even messed up, Rania was quite a sight: long legs, curvy hips, breasts perfect enough to model lingerie—and also to stash twenties in her bra—and down below, a perfectly trimmed triangle of soft black hair, each tiny strand flowing south as if stroked by a brush. I wondered if I should check for molestation or rape marks, but didn’t really know what to look for, not that it mattered. She was a stripper after all—probably more—so scrapes and bruises were likely part of the job. Anything more internal, tears or what have you, would need a doctor, or at least a paramedic with a rape kit, and that sure wasn’t going to happen, not here, not now.
    I turned up the heat and covered her with a Pendleton, the whole time shivering myself, but with regret. I hadn’t seen her so exposed since we first met at Club Boheme, a brief moment of entertainment I’d moronically mistaken for something more. I didn’t feel guilty about that encounter, though—it had been the luck of the draw, or dance—but when she came to town, I let my guard down, allowed myself to believe she’d come all that way for me, and then, when it was obvious she’d come only to line her pockets, I became wounded, angry, stewing full of jealousy—none of which, of course, justified my trailing Rania and her mark out to that isolated locomotive cab like a stalker.
    What was worse, though, came later, after that first storm died down and she’d returned to Denver. That’s when I learned that Toni’s body had been found up at the coal mine, and whether out of spite, or jealousy, or God knows what, I never called, or did anything, to warn this now bruised and frozen girl not to return. 


***


    Even muted by wind and sheet metal, Rania’s scream sliced through me like a sword. 
    I ducked down and bolted back along the catwalk, hurtled down the rear steps. Thick snow swirled through the night, and although I doubted she’d identified me, I still kept my headlights dark as I fishtailed back along the long line of hopper cars. What an idiot, I thought, and waited until mid-train to turn on the lights, maintaining speed out of the yard, across 133, only stopping to calm myself beneath the dark canopy of the Kum & Go. 
    I wished the place were open and warm, Orv Brody manning the fort like a sentinel on guard for wayward trainmen. I could’ve used a bag of chips, maybe a soda, beer, anything to settle the bile ripping through my guts. But the store was buttoned up and dark, seemingly as abandoned as I felt. 
    Then all at once my stomach went into spasm, and I threw open the door and puked into drifting snow.
    How long I stayed hanging out the door I couldn’t say, multiple heaves for sure, bright yellow stuff at the end, no blood though. My insides were grinding like stripped gears, but the cold felt good, almost refreshing. If I stayed in this position, I thought, bent over and inert, for just a little longer, everything would be all right. 
    “Guess that’ll clean up okay once it freezes,” a voice said amicably. 
    “Huh?” I struggled upright, the world a blur.
    “I must’ve missed all the fun,” Orv said, and added a laugh. “You lookin’ for gas?”
    “What? God, no…” 
    “How ’bout an ambulance then?”
    I forced a meek chuckle. “Thought you were closed.”
    “That why you barfed on my pump?”
    “Sorry, Orv,” I said, the banter soothing, a relief. “Give me a shovel and I’ll clean up.” I leaned out again, but then felt myself start to topple over. Only Orv’s firm hand kept me in the seat.
    “Right,” Orv said skeptically. “And what are you doing out here, Sid?”
    “Checking the yard,” I replied, but knew it sounded ridiculous. No one in their right mind would be out in this mess. I thought about Rania, and her engineer admirer, and a new jolt of acid churned through me. 
    “Hmm…” Orv said. “It seems you’re missing quite the party.”
    “Guess so,” I said, my breath steaming into the cold.
    “Yup…” Orv glanced up Main Street toward the hotel, then turned back and stared at me, eyes dull, expressionless. “Rumor has it that crazy Toni wants to kill you.” 
    My whole body clenched, wooziness overwhelmed by fear. “What?” I said, forcing a laugh, trying not to hyperventilate. “What are you talking about?” 
    Orv broke into a wide grin. “Looks like your gals know how—”
    “They’re not my…” I interrupted, a new dry heave rising.
    “Probably time for you to call it a night,” Orv said. And then a pair of headlights lit up the gas pumps from the train yard entrance across 133. We both watched in silence as a UP maintenance truck rolled steadily past the pumps, its windows too dark to see inside. It cruised halfway to the hotel before Orv said, “Think you can make it home?”
    All I could muster was a nod. 
    I pulled away from the Kum & Go into whirling snow, but in my rearview mirror caught a glimpse of Orv unlocking his store, his truck idling nearby. Going home made sense, let the girls take care of themselves, not my problem…but I couldn’t do that. If there’d been a natural balance in this windblown whistle stop, they—no, I’d—messed it up but good. Worse, the girls didn’t even know that Toni was loaded for bear, that god only knew what she’d do to defend her territory. 
    I turned off my headlights short of the hotel and rolled to an unlit spot in the rear parking area. At this point all I could do was stand guard, maybe try to talk some sense into Toni, not that I knew how to do that. I trudged quietly into the lounge. Luckily things had quieted considerably; only a couple trainmen remained, each trying to impress a single female straggler, music low, no dancing.
    Herb rested in his front desk chair, seemingly asleep, but his eyes popped open when I got near. “Thought you’d called it a night,” he said, stretching his arms.
    “Wanted to check on…” I trailed off.
    “Your girls?”
    “They’re not my…Herb, you know I didn’t plan this.”
    “Uh huh,” he said, not buying it. “But now they’re here and doing land-office business.”
    My head started to pound, and I rubbed my temples. “Maybe I should find Toni, make amends.”
    “Probably too late for that.” Herb chuckled. “Come to think of it, though, she’s been kinda scarce since you—”
    “She threatened me, Herb.”
    “Got it,” he said, then leaned back and closed his eyes again.
    I wanted to make a quick swing through the floors, find the girls, but all at once my legs buckled with exhaustion. I staggered into the lounge and sank into an out-of-the-way chair. My body felt empty, head throbbing. There were empty cups at the lounge sink, and I knew I should drink water—something, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t even take off my coat. All I did was stare out a far window, snow billowing hypnotically outside in a single floodlight, too tired to think or sleep. 
    Then I was gone.
    Sometime during the night, though, I became aware of headlights entering the parking lot, a truck creeping slowly by. I remembered thinking through my haze that I needed to force myself up, see who was driving, but I couldn’t move. 
    I awoke at first light, clear sky beyond the sparkle of hoarfrost, the lounge empty and cool. I splashed cold water on my face, drank like a gallon of water, but still felt like shit. Slow-moving feet pattered in rooms overhead; a snowplow scraped along Main Street. What now? I thought, for what seemed the umpteenth time during the last day. Probably best I not wait around to see Rania, even though I ached to do so. I had to accept she hadn’t come all this way for me, and reminded myself… Accept what you got rather than what you couldn’t get. Whatever happened had happened, and in some strange, yet mildly disappointing way, I felt like I’d probably managed to dodge the worst of it.
    What I needed to do was escape to my trailer, eat something, shower, go back to sleep, try to forget the whole unfortunate night. But the entire first floor of the hotel was deserted, no Herb at the front desk; it wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to play back the camera feed file, fast-forward, get a read on all the comings and goings. I tapped the keyboard space bar, clicked on the security folder icon as I’d seen Herb do many times before. The folder opened easily enough, a bright rectangle on the screen, but then I just stared at the words inside, trying to comprehend the message. All it said was: Folder Is Empty. 
    Two days later news filtered down from the mine that Toni’s dead body had been found inside the cab of a helper locomotive—the railroad police chalking it up to trespassing and drugs—which, even in my lingering state of dishevelment and despair, I knew was wrong. 


***


    I placed an ice pack to Rania’s cheek, and she twitched, good sign. Then I dabbed a warm, wet washcloth to the dried blood on her scalp. She tensed, also good. For the moment, at least, her breathing was steady and some pink had returned to her face. Still, she was out cold. I read the note again. She’s All Yours. Meant for me? Seemed so, but she wasn’t mine. Hell, I didn’t even know she’d been planning to come up. I shuddered though, vulnerability turning to fear. 
    I glanced at my parka, draped on a chair back, the pistol pulling one side damn near to the floor. All year I never asked Herb about the missing security videos—how could I, not without admitting I’d sneaked a look in the first place? Once railroad security convinced the sheriff not to make a federal case of it, well, seemed best to pretend nothing special had happened during the storm. I bought the gun, though. Toni had been a mess, on a lot of levels, but she wasn’t stupid—not overdose stupid—which left only one nasty conclusion: someone wanted her gone. Still, the security camera footage from that night had caught a lot of railroad folk in unflattering positions, its disappearance possibly a godsend.
    But it sure as hell haunted me now.
    Snow was still falling thick as confetti, but the wind had become sporadic, and through a brief lull I heard the soft drone of an approaching engine. I peeked out a window and saw a UP maintenance truck—lights extinguished—pull behind the Blazer. My heart rate accelerated at the sight of the driver sitting motionless in the dark. 
    I glanced quickly at Rania, bruised and naked underneath my blanket—the presence outside was a threat to both of us—and slipped on my parka, gloves, gripped hold of the pistol. This was all my fault, but whoever sat in the truck could not be allowed inside. Surprise seemed the best defense. I set the doorknob to lock behind me, waited for a wind gust, and then, with gun in hand, sprang outside and rushed toward the truck.
    I knew I was being stupid, blatantly exposing myself, but I couldn’t stop, and screamed as I pointed the weapon at the windshield, “What do you want?”
    It took a second too long to realize the driver’s door wasn’t closed flush. 
    I sensed movement behind me, and then heard a dull snap as my forearm exploded in pain. My arm crumpled, but the pistol was still in hand, my gloved finger wedged tight in the trigger guard. In crazed panic I swung my arm—and the gun—blindly. It connected with something, and I saw a muzzle flash, the noise and pain devastating, my senses recovering just in time to see glove and gun fly off into the shadows.
    I tried to cry out, but could only manage an anguished groan.
    I held my limp arm, but then a hard metal point jabbed hard into my back, and before I could react, someone slammed me into the side of the trailer. “You know what I want, asshole,” someone hissed.
    The voice sounded reedy and breathless, vaguely familiar, a trainman, someone—
    “Thought you’d get the message last time,” it continued, jamming whatever it was into my spine. “This is a railroad, for Chrissakes, not a goddamn—”
    “Jess?” I groaned. “Jess Barton? What the fuck, man.” I sucked in air, trying to think of something, anything to stall, try to figure out what was happening.
    “They should’ve fired your ass years ago,” he barked. “You and everyone like you.”
    Pain shot across my chest, hard to breathe, I thought I might pass out, but then a sudden gust swirled snow cold across my face. “What are you talking about?” I cried.
    “Respect,” he hissed, “for the sacred privilege to drive…” He hesitated, and then his tone turned acidic. “I tried to show you…last year,” Jess said. “But you had to bring them back.”
    “Who?” 
    “The whores!” Jess spat out.
    Oh fuck, I thought, suddenly certain I had to keep this maniac away from Rania. “You killed Toni,” I said, and winced as he jabbed me harder.
    “Hah,” he shouted. “You think I’m stupid?”
    A new wave of pain and confusion seared through my body. “I don’t…I—” 
    “No, she did that all by herself.” Jess paused, let out a laugh. “I just—”
    All of a sudden a different, softer voice interrupted. “I think that’s enough, Mr. Barton.” 
    “Wha—” Jess started to respond, but his words were replaced by a thin moan, and then the pressure eased off my back. I knew that voice and involuntarily twisted around, but I was face-to-face with Jess, his eyes wide and face contorted as if stung by a bee, palming his neck. Then his eyes fluttered, a tire iron dropped from his hand, and he crumpled in slow motion to the ground. 
    Orv Brody stood over him, a plastic syringe in his hand.
    “Looks like your Mr. Barton’s developed a nasty… What should we call it?” he said. “Yes, your basic substance abuse problem.” Orv held up the syringe and smiled. “You might call this Toni’s revenge.”
    I staggered over and slumped on my front doorstep.
    “Boy oh boy.” Orv chuckled. “That man sure loved his trains.”
    “Did…did you kill him?”
    “Oh, God, no.” Orv laughed. “No, I think we’ll depend on Mother Nature for that.”
    “How did you…” I trailed off, my mind suddenly overrun with too many images, questions.
    “Figured you’d found something bad when I saw you hightail it out of the yard.” Orv shook his head. “Of course, our little friend here had already told me what he was up to.”
    “Wait, I’m—” Then it hit me, the note—She’s All Yours—it wasn’t meant for me after all. Jess had left Rania for Orv.
    “Yes, quite a little pickle we have here,” Orv said, far too calmly. “Thought we’d dodged a bullet last year with Toni, never expected a repeat, thought Jess would’ve been promoted to engineer—or better yet fired.”
    “So Toni…you—”
    “Now, now,” Orv said. “Let’s just say I helped Jess finish that job. It’s a delicate balance up here,” he continued, “what with coal getting such a bad rep out in the world. Sometimes we civilians need to step up to the challenge.” His face widened into a grin; then he said, “Can’t believe this idiot thought I was on his team, though, like I give a rat’s ass about the holy order of railroading. Your precious railroad,” he said bitterly, “is gonna disappear once they haul out every damn ounce, hopefully long after I’m gone. But for the time being, some of us like things just the way they are, empty trains coming in, full ones going out, with you boys leaving a few pennies in our pockets every now and then.” He stopped and stared at me, eyes narrow and dark. “You getting this?” 
    In truth, I wasn’t sure, my arm felt like it was about to fall off, I was freezing, and a gorgeous naked stripper lay only a few yards away. 
    “Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Orv continued, his intensity easing off a touch, “I understand that once in a while your son-of-a-bitching throttle jockeys need to pretend they’re something special…” He started to smile. “Just don’t do it here, or some of us yokels will…” He shook his head and laughed. “Come on, help me load this moron into my truck?”
    I thought if ever there was a time for me to disappear, get in the Blazer and drive into a snowdrift, this was it, but before I could untangle my mind, Orv backed his F-150 behind the maintenance truck. The pain was unrelenting, but my one good arm proved enough to help guide Jess into the front seat. Once buckled in he looked peaceful, asleep, which he was, sort of. 
    “Now listen,” Orv said, his voice firm, instructive. “What you’ve got to understand is that no one wants trouble, not you, not me, and God knows not the railroad. This here line is what they call a cash cow, and since nobody liked Mr. Barton anyways, they’ll want to keep this little episode hushed up.” Orv took in a deep breath, then sighed. “And just in case any of your railroad fanatics get nosy…well, I’ve got insurance.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a two-inch metal rectangle. Orv pinched it between thumb and forefinger, a computer flash drive. “Yup,” he said, and slid it back into his pocket, “don’t think anyone at the railroad wants to argue with this.”
    The images of stoned and drunk, debauched trainmen were a year old, but it didn’t matter. If the UP brass saw them, they’d clean house, Herb, me, maybe even Orv’s Kum & Go too. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—send it along to HQ, which I suddenly realized was his point.
    Orv smiled through frosted glass and then drove off through the snow. 
    He was out of sight when another vehicle, an SUV, the same black Yukon I’d seen earlier, pulled to a stop on the street. 
    Car doors slammed in the darkness, and I heard footsteps running toward me, a woman crying out, “Where is she? What did you do to her?” It was Paola, her face even meaner and more beautiful than I remembered, also a man, huge, the private dance room guard from Club Boheme. 
    I held my arm, the throbbing pain suddenly replaced by anger. “She’s fine,” I yelled. “No thanks to you.” The big guy scanned the scene, all the footprints, then pulled my pistol out of the snow, my glove still stuck in the trigger guard. “Come on,” he said softly, and motioned for us to follow.
    Once inside, they rushed to Rania. Her face was pinker than only moments earlier, and as Paola stroked her forehead, she smiled, eyes trying to open. All I wanted to do was lie down, close my eyes, maybe sleep until spring, but then I remembered the UP truck Jess had used was parked outside. It took all my effort to zip up, trudge back outside and into the driver’s seat. I crawled it over to the hotel and left it alongside all the others. Snow would cover it before dawn.
    By the time I walked back to my trailer, the Yukon was gone and I knew Rania would be too. One-handed, I struggled out of my jacket and boots before I saw the note left on the table near my couch. It was the same note I’d found on Rania in the locomotive, the flip side now showing a lipstick kiss imprint, along with the scrawled words…Choo Choo!
    Two years left to earn my pension, I thought, and wondered if I could wait that long to see her again.
 

Blue_Sky.jpg

THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray