Steam shot out of the radiator as Julian loosened the cap. He stepped back from the car and wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The hot wind battered him with dirt and pieces of prairie grass. He licked his parched lips and kicked at the rust-colored dirt road with the tip of his brown Oxford. Using his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the white sun, he scanned the desolate prairie that stretched beyond each side of the road to both the east and west horizons. He turned to the direction he had been heading. The road stretched on in an endless straight line. Dirt eddies skipped across it. Mirages of water puddles wavered in the heat that rose out of the sun-cooked dirt.
He turned to the direction he had come from. It was no different. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a structure or a sign.
“How could I get so lost?” he mumbled.
He opened the trunk of his car, lifted out the body of a man in a gray suit and laid him in the dirt. He reached into the man’s back pants pocket and took out a wallet, opened it and removed a large number of bills. He stuffed them in his pocket then threw the wallet into the grass on the opposite side of the road. Raising the man’s legs, he dragged him into the prairie grass and kicked some dirt and grass on him and went back to the car. From the back seat he took out a large brown leather satchel.He kicked the front tire, spat at the overheated engine, which crackled noisily. He began walking ahead.
Rivulets of sweat streamed down the middle of his back and from under his arms, soaking his shirt. The more he walked the heavier his shoes felt. He held the satchel on top of his head, shielding his balding scalp from the sun. The prairie grass rustled as it was swept into current-like movement by the constant breeze. His leg muscles began to ache.
He had no idea how far he had walked when he came upon a black train sitting on tracks that ran from east to west. A steady stream of white smoke curled up from its smokestack. Attached to the engine were two cars and a caboose. Standing in the stairway leading to the first car was a conductor wearing a red jacket with black epaulets and a red cap with a tall, perfectly round crown and a long frontal black brim.
Julian ran to the train and collapsed onto the bottom step below where the conductor stood. “I’m so glad to see you,” Julian stammered.
“We’ve been waiting for you, sir,” the conductor said.
Puzzled, Julian gazed up at the conductor. “You have? How did you know I was coming?”
“We pride ourselves on anticipating who will be boarding The Express,” the conductor said.
“My car broke down some miles back and I need to get to Missoula by tomorrow morning for a business meeting,” Julian said. “I don’t have a ticket but I can pay in cash if you can get me to a connection going to Montana.”
“You don’t need a ticket or to pay, sir,” the conductor said. “It will be our pleasure to have you aboard The Express.” The conductor came down the steps and reached out his hand. “Let me help you with your luggage and please get aboard.”
“I’ll carry my bag,” Julian said, hugging the satchel close to his chest. He climbed the steps to the door leading into the first car.
“This is an old train,” Julian said.
“Yes, it is very, very old. You will be seated in row nine,” the conductor said as he opened the door. Julian went in and began down the aisle between the two rows of seats. Hearing a loud click behind him, he turned to see the conductor locking the door.
The seats in the car were covered in blood red plush velvet. Ornately designed gold trim bordered the windows of the twelve rows and ran along the ceiling.
There were three other passengers: a woman and two men.
He passed by the seat with the woman. She was wearing a pink satin loose-fitting gown and elbow-length black gloves. She held a cigarette between her fingers that she anxiously waved back and forth. She stared at him, her eyes wide with fear. Her eyelashes were long and thick with mascara, and light blue eye shadow circled her eyes. Her lips were painted fire engine red. The light streaming in through the window made her long golden hair glow incandescently. She wore a faux diamond tiara, and around her neck and left wrist a matching necklace and bracelet. After taking a long drag from the cigarette she blew multiple smoke rings that seemed to float in the air above her head, like wispy halos.
Julian nodded to her as he passed by, feeling the scrutiny of her stare. Once in his seat the conductor said, “Is there anything you’re in need of ? ”
“Water,” Julian said. “I could have died of thirst out there.”
“That would have been unfortunate,” the conductor said. “I’ll bring you water right away.” He walked down the aisle and through the door to the second car.
The train whistle shrieked and the train began to move.
Julian turned to the window and watched as a tumbleweed was blown across the prairie.
“My name is Maude Prentiss,” she said, her voice quivering, as she stood in the aisle waving a lit cigarette back and forth. She leaned down and whispered, “Help me get off this train.”
“Just tell the conductor you want off,” he said.
“You don’t understand,” she said frantically. “No one just gets off this train.” She looked frazzled.
“Maybe if you just got some shuteye, you might feel better,” he said.
“I don’t need sleep. You have to help me and help yourself,” she said. “He’s next.” She cocked her head to a young man sitting a row down on the opposite side of the aisle. “He set fire to some dance club, killed a bunch of people.”
The young man was wearing a brown fedora with a black band that circled the base of the crown. He wore a tight t-shirt that showed off his muscular physique and black and white saddle shoes that he had propped up on the seat in front of him. His beige linen slacks were a few inches too short, showing his bare ankles. When entering the train, Julian had noticed the paleness of the young man’s face and the black circles around his eyes.
The conductor came through the door from the second car. “We’re getting ready to enter a tunnel. Everyone should be in their seat.”
“Please help me,” Maude said to Julian before she returned to her seat.
The conductor went to the front of the car and stood in the aisle facing the passengers, a malevolent grin on his face.
As the train entered the tunnel, the car vibrated and shook. Julian tightly grasped the strap of the satchel.
The young man screamed just as the train was enveloped in darkness.
Minutes later, momentarily blinded by the outside light that flooded the car as the train came out of the tunnel, Julian blinked several times as he looked out the window and saw a tumbleweed rolling across the prairie. He couldn’t be certain but it looked like the same landscape and same tumbleweed he had seen before. He looked around the car.
The young man with the saddle shoes was gone.
Lincoln LaRue plopped down in the seat next to Julian. He wore an old top hat and mismatched pieces from several tuxedos, none of the pieces being in style. His jacket had long tails and he wore a bright blue bow tie. There was a white silk handkerchief folded into a puff in the top left pocket of the jacket.
He held a cane with a tarnished silver handle in the shape of a horse head. He raised it up. “I got this from the great Fred Astaire when I was just a kid,” he said. “I was down on Broadway outside a theater just showing some of my dance moves to earn a few bucks from folks going in and out of the theater, and Fred Astaire was there. He said I would grow up to be a great dancer and gave me his cane.” He blew on the horse head and wiped it with the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket. “I haven’t danced in thirty years. There’s no money in it.” He patted the satchel that was in Julian’s lap. “How’s business?” he said with a grin that went from ear to ear and displayed his perfectly aligned, bright white teeth.
“Business?” Julian said, bewildered. He looked out at the flat prairie then back at the empty seat where the young man had sat. “The guy in the fedora. He just disappeared.”
Lincoln laughed out loud. “Ain’t that something? A few folks before him vanished too. This is one of the strangest train rides I ever took,” he said. “So tell me, how much cash you carrying in that satchel?”
“Who said there’s cash in it?” Julian said.
“Any satchel being protected the way you’re protecting that one has cash in it,” Lincoln said. “And it’s dirty money you’re carrying. I don’t know dirty from what, but dirty nevertheless.”
“This train–when does it leave the prairie?” Julian said.
Lincoln looked out the window. “Prairie? We’ve been riding through New York City ever since it picked me up in Harlem.”
Julian followed Lincoln’s gaze. “That’s impossible. There’s nothing but scrub land out there.”
“Drug dealers shouldn’t take the stuff they sell,” Lincoln said.
“I don’t sell drugs,” Julian said. “I’m getting off this train.” He reached up and pulled the cord that ran above the windows. He waited a minute and when nothing happened, he pulled on it again.
The conductor came out of the second car and stopped next to Julian’s seat. With his arms crossed over his chest he said, “Is there a problem, Mr. Lawson?”
“I appreciate getting the ride, but I want to get off the train,” Julian said. Suddenly realizing, he then said, “How do you know my name?”
“We do very thorough background checks on all of our passengers before they get on The Express,” the conductor said. “You’re forty-two, unmarried, and you rob banks. Your chief characteristic is laziness. Your whole life has been a failure.”
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but you’re going to stop this train and let me and anybody else who wants off, get off,” Julian said as he stood up and pulled a gun from inside his jacket and aimed it at the conductor.
The conductor tilted his head back and bellowed a guttural laugh. “That gun is useless on this train. Now sit down, you pathetic excuse for a man. We’re about to enter a tunnel.”
Julian pulled the trigger but the gun only made a clicking sound. He fell back into his seat, as if pushed by invisible hands.
The train entered the tunnel and Lincoln screamed.
When the train came out of the tunnel, Lincoln was gone but his cane was lying in the seat. Julian watched a tumbleweed roll across the prairie.
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to push her out the window,” Maude said gripping tightly onto Julian’s arm. “Sure I knew she was my husband’s mistress, but I’m not a murderer.”
Julian slowly peeled her fingers from his arm. “You need to get back to your own seat,” he said. “I have my own problems.”
“You can’t just sit there and do nothing. Maybe if the two of us worked together we could find a way off this train,” she said.
“What do you think we can do, break out?” he said.
“It’s worth a try,” she said.
He stood up and with Lincoln’s cane firmly grasped in his hand he swung the cane back and smacked the horse head against the window. A long thin crack ran down the length of the cane. “That was a waste of effort,” he said, then sat down and pulled the satchel onto his lap, and casually examined the crack in the cane.
“You can’t stop there,” Maude pleaded. “After me, you’re next, do you realize that?” she screamed at him.
Suddenly the door at the back of the car opened and the conductor stepped out. “We’re about to go into the tunnel,” he said. “Go to your seat Miss Prentiss.”
She ran at the conductor and tried to kick and scratch him, screaming, “You can’t do this.”
“I can do anything I want to,” he said, deflecting her feet and fingernails. “I run this train.”
As the train began to enter the tunnel, Maude ran back to Julian. “Coward,” she hissed.
# # #
Deputy Tuney stared down at the body lying face down in the dirt. “A man would be a fool to try walking five miles out in this heat without any water. He would have been safer staying with his car.”
“Criminals aren’t known for their intelligence,” Sheriff Crag said as he looked at the driver’s license in the wallet. “Julian Lawson. This is him alright, one of the two who robbed the bank and killed that bank clerk in Huxley.”
“It looks like both of them got their due in the end,” Deputy Tuney said. “One gets shot in the head by his own partner and the other dies of sun stroke. Neither of them probably knew their life was about to come to an end.”
With the tip of his boot the sheriff nudged the cracked cane Julian grasped in his hand. “Probably not, but I’d bet dollars to donuts there was a place reserved in hell for this one.”
About the Author:
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 400 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977