Hi everyone, and happy Thursday evening. It looks like the beautiful fall weather we’ve been enjoying has slapped us back to reality. I don’t know about you folks, but here in cheese head country it’s been cool and wet. I watched the Cubs battle the Nat’s on TV yesterday, and the fans looked to be dressed for a Bears’ game, with all the coats and hoodies.
I grew up on the north side of Chicago, and spent many a chilly spring or fall day at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, holding a cup of icy suds with a gloved hand. The wind off Lake Michigan can be bone chilling when blowing in, but, I’m sure there are still a few sunny days ahead, so hang in there.
My wife and I are not going to wait for Indian Summer this year. We are packing our bags and pointing the mini-van south for the next five weeks. We’ve been very diligent since we moved into our new apartment trying to get it just how we want it. The boxes and crates are stowed, the decorating is just about finished, and the place feels like home.
We need to burn some timeshare weeks we’ve been saving, so we are going to spend some quality time in Florida this fall, so the next time you here from me, I’ll be writing to you from my balcony overlooking the pool.
I hope you will be planning some time away too. We all need a change of view and climate from time to time, so let’s celebrate with a short story. Here’s a little fiction I’ve written for the occasion. Enjoy!
The Empire Builder
“All aboard,” called the conductor. Even though I booked a private bedroom, I wanted to be one of the first on the train. Chicago’s Union Station was a bustling place, even at 8AM on a Thursday. I was traveling alone on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” line headed to Seattle Washington to meet my wife. She flew out to San Francisco a week earlier to visit her cousins, Tom and Karen.
The travel brochure said, “On board, you will experience the comfort and relaxation of train travel while witnessing some spectacular scenery. From the sights and sounds of Chicago, past the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the plains of North Dakota, high desert and Big Sky country, through Glacier National Park, and the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.”
All I knew was that I needed to meet my wife, Dar, at the foot of the Seattle Space Needle in three days. I had a feeling she was planning some sort of surprise for the 4th of July weekend. After 37 years with the same woman you learn to pick up on a few things. I could have flown out, but I really hate to fly. It’s not a fear. It’s just a pain in the rear, and I had never taken a long train trip before, so I decided to give it a try, although it was about triple the cost of a flight.
The accommodations were superb. My private, air conditioned room had a twin size bed, with a night stand, small reading lamp, comfy chair and a private lavatory. It was much, much better than being jammed in like cattle on an over-priced under-serviced albatross. Friendly skies my butt.
The first few hours were going to be boring, scenery-wise until we hit the Wisconsin Dells area so I sat back in the chair and read the morning Sun Times. Perhaps later I could find a spot in the sightseer lounge car.
What was that noise? I must have dozed off. The train was stopped, but we weren’t at a station. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Was this normal? Where the hell were we, and why won’t they stop blaring the train horn?
All I could see out my window was water far below and a shore line about a mile away. There were bluffs, tall trees and some rolling hills. How long was I asleep? As I peered ahead out my window I saw a bend in the track and had a good view of the train cars ahead and the engine. We appeared to be on a bridge. This couldn’t be a scheduled stop.
The horn finally stopped and I heard some commotion, someone walking, no, running past my compartment. As a writer, my overactive imagination took over immediately. I was sure that I was in the middle of an Agatha Christie mystery. Of course, it could be nothing. No, it was something, something intriguing.
I slowly opened my cabin door to peek out. I caught a glimpse of a young girl, dark hair, maybe twenty years old wearing a white linen dress. She looked straight into my eyes and put her pointer finger to her pursed lips to shush me. I glanced to the right to check if someone else was there, but the corridor was empty and when I turned back the girl was gone. I was in the last car. Where could she possibly be?
Should I report this to a conductor? What would I tell him? Yes, sir, I saw a young girl, and then I didn’t see her. It was too absurd, so I stepped back into my cabin and locked the door. The train started to move again. I felt a bit relieved as I sat back in my chair and scanned the horizon.
The train made a wide turn so I looked back onto the tracks. There she was again. On the bridge, leaning over, looking down. Oh my God, she’s going to jump! Get back, don’t do it! I was helpless in my attempt to stop her. I should have said something to someone.
She turned my way and seemed to be smiling at me. Then a sudden breeze caused her dress to fly up over her head exposing her stars and stripes bikini panties as she leaped feet first off, the bridge.
“No! No!” I screamed out loud.
I pressed my face against the window as she plummeted toward certain death. I opened the window to see all the way down. She was still falling as I heard a loud boom and was astonished to see red, white and blue smoke shoot from her back, just as her commando parachute opened.
Far below was a Mississippi Paddle Boat. I’ve never felt more relieved, when she landed feet first on the top deck regaled by the crowd on the boat as they hooted and applauded.
We pulled into Minneapolis/St. Paul Union Depot about a half hour after the ‘leaping lady riverboat fiasco’. I missed the Dells scenery completely during my four-hour nap and I was starving, so I took this opportunity to find a table in the dining car for lunch.
I was delighted to find rows of fresh flowers on neatly dressed tables. Again, far better than a bag of pretzels and soda in a plastic cup at 25,000 ft. listening to some whining brat and breathing God knows what infectious bacteria.
I sat at a small table for two about halfway into the car. A server in a white shirt blue bow tie and a red vest greeted me with fresh water and a lemon slice. He was an elderly black gentleman with white hair and chin whiskers. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the entire car was tastefully decorated for the holiday. The red carnations in the vases on white linen table cloths blended nicely with the gold flatware wrapped in blue cloth napkins. Everything was pristine.
The lunch menu was themed for the fare of the major city stops. There were about 40 stations along the 2200-mile route, so I was looking forward to some great meals, and of course a libation now and then.
I asked the server for a suggestion.
” Well sir, the Twin Cities Red Lake Walleye was caught fresh this morning. We serve it on a bed of rice pilaf or on a lightly toasted sourdough roll.” He said in a deep gracious voice.
I went for it. I ordered the Walleye on sourdough with coleslaw and crispy potato pancakes paired with a light Chardonnay. This was a blast so far. I took a shot of my plate with my smart phone and texted it to Dar with a comment.
“Just pulling out of Minneapolis honey, YUMMY! How was your airplane food?”
She came back with the expected reply. “Just dandy bozo”.
Yep, that’s what ya get after 37 years of wedded bliss.
As I was sipping the last of my second glass of wine, I pulled out my travel brochure;
“Sightseer Lounge/Café: is the perfect location for scenic viewing and lighter fare. Large
Panoramic windows provide the perfect vantage point for sightseeing and making new friends.
The Café is located on the lower level of this car offering sandwiches, snacks and beverages.”
That’s for me. Why waste a perfectly good afternoon buzz. The lounge car was attached to the dining car. Again, I was impressed as I entered. Comfy overstuffed swivel chairs and couches lined the car next to large viewing windows. An eight-seater oval bar was at one end and there was a small snack kitchen on the other.
About half the car was occupied. I claimed a swivel near the bar and ordered a B&B from the quite attractive young server. Now we’re talking. I’m usually a loner when traveling, but I guess the liquor loosened me up a bit, so I introduced myself to the middle-aged couple sitting on the couch across from me.
They were from Stanley North Dakota and returning home from a funeral service in Minneapolis. Did I say they were middle aged? Actually, he looked 50ish but she was much younger. They introduced themselves as a couple, so who was I to doubt them. Aha, another mystery perhaps. Who are they really? No one is from Stanley ND. Who do they think they’re dealing with here?
There we go with that damn writer’s imagination again. It’s even more fun while being a bit light headed.
He was dressed quite slumily, but she was decked out to the nines. She wore a tight white spandex dress with red heels, and a spangled scarf tight around her neck. Her hair was dyed bright unnatural red and her heavy eye makeup made her look a bit cheap. No, I’m sorry, they are not a couple my friend. They are definitely on the run.
The scruffy guy got up to get some drinks, so I did some prying with his young floosy.
“I’m sorry for your loss. Was it someone close?” I asked.
“No, not to me, she replied nervously, just a friend of my husband’s.”
Hmm, ‘Not to me’, that seemed like a rather strange reply. If they are truly together, you would think she would be a little more rueful for her husband’s loss, and why is she so jittery?
I asked if they were in Minneapolis long, but she acted distracted and didn’t answer. She kept glancing at the bar, as if she was fearful of being seen talking to me. I took a chance and asked her if she was okay. She looked at me with an almost terrified look and shook her head slightly, then turned to look at the bar again.
The bartender was a bit backed up so it was taking a while for her husband to get served. I lowered my voice and asked how I could help. She glanced toward the door, as if signaling me to leave the car. I took it that she wanted to talk to me in private, so I excused myself to go to the men’s room. As I left the car I glanced back just as the husband was returning with their cocktails.
I entered the men’s room briefly, just to wash my hands hoping she would be waiting for me when I came out. She wasn’t there, so I returned to my seat and put my nose in a magazine. I tried to casually peek at her as I reached for my drink, but she just sat close to the man sipping her glass of white wine.
This was driving me crazy. How could I get her attention without alerting him? What kind of trouble could she, or they be in? Wait, don’t get carried away. You know what almost happened last time with the stunt jumper. You really could have made a fool of yourself. Just relax and let it go.
I found a crossword in the magazine. I love crosswords, so I took out my pen and started in on it. A six-letter word for deceive. Betray. That’s it. She betrayed him and he is forcing her to go with him to another city. Dammit. Focus on the puzzle. Hazard; a six-letter word beginning with a D. Danger. Okay that’s enough. Forget about the couple. Everything is just fine.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. The meal and drinks were starting to take over. I finally calmed down a bit when I was startled by a hacking cough then a panicked wheezing sound. I opened my eyes and saw the woman holding her chest gasping to catch her breath. She was choking.
“Help! Someone please help!” Her husband cried out.
The snack bar attendant rushed over to her. He was a large man and said he was trained as an EMT.
“What did she eat?” he asked her husband.
“Nothing, he said anxiously. She just started coughing and holding her chest!”
The attendant got behind her and tried the Heimlich maneuver. He placed his fists under her sternum from behind and pulled up sharply several times, hoping to dislodge the blockage. It didn’t work. Her face was turning blue as her eyes rolled back and she passed out.
The EMT put his ear to her mouth to check for breathing and tried to feel a pulse from her throat.
“Is she breathing, shouted her husband! Please don’t let her die!”
The bartender rushed from around the bar to see if she could help, as the EMT started CPR compressions.
1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, he kept count as he pushed on her chest. He and the bartender took turns, but couldn’t revive the girl.
Finally, a doctor came rushing into the car and took over. He worked on her methodically, checking her pulse every 30 counts. Nothing was working. He finally became exhausted and gave up and sadly covered the woman’s face with a white linen napkin. We were all asked to leave the club car, only her husband the attendant, bartender and doctor remained.
Ironically, the next stop was Stanley North Dakota. I watched from my compartment window as an ambulance and police car pulled up next to the small no frills depot. The woman’s body was placed in the ambulance and her husband followed in the squad car as they pulled out onto the roadway.
I was quite shaken by the gruesome experience. I called Dar and told her the whole story. She was shocked to hear that the young woman died right in front of me and was very concerned that I was okay remaining on the train.
“Why don’t you rent a car or find a way to the nearest airport and fly out?” she said.
It was tempting, but I told her that I was okay and preferred to continue on the train. What else could possibly go wrong from here I thought.
I remained in my cabin for the next several hours and tried to calm myself. I had some tea bags and ginger snaps in my suitcase, so I ran some hot water and steeped the tea and snacked on the cookies. I started to feel better, but kept seeing the terrified look on the woman’s face when she was trying to reach out to me for help. I felt that I was partly responsible for her demise. I closed my eyes and tried to relax as the train pulled out. I started to doze off again.
When I awoke it looked to be near dusk from the angle of the sun. It was 8:30 already. I was famished so I washed up and headed for the dining car once again.
The window lights were dimmed and there were lighted candles in small hurricane lamps at each table. I slid into the same single booth I lunched at, anticipating another fabulous meal. I watched the scenery go by, as the sun began to set behind some rolling hills in the distance.
There was only one other diner in the car, just across the aisle and one table in front of mine. He was a young, well dressed gentleman in a gray business suit, sipping coffee and reading a rather thick hardback novel. He was riding backwards, facing me.
My same server appeared once again with my freshly lemoned water.
“Good evening sir, you got here just in time.” He said.
I didn’t realize that full dinner service ended at 9:00.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“We just crossed over into Montana sir. Big sky country.” He said.
I asked him for another recommendation from the menu.
“Well sir, we have one juicy 18oz. piece of the prime rib left and an end cut. I could have the chef prepare it to your taste. It comes in Au jus with fresh asparagus lightly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, double baked seasoned potato, or brown rice and a side of our homemade horseradish sauce.”
“You sir are a genius.” I said. I’ll take the 18-oz. piece medium rare with the potato.”
“Our chef is the real genius. May I start you off with a cocktail or something from our starter menu?” he asked.
“Absolutely. I’d like a double Jameson in a bourbon glass with just 2 ice cubes.” I replied.
“Very good sir. I’ll bring a basket of our warm sour dough and honey butter.” He said.
“Could you also pair the meal with a dry red please?” I asked.
“We have a bottle of 2008 Jordan Cabernet. If you don’t finish it I could recork it for you.” He said.
“Just be sure to let it breath a bit.”
“That sounds perfect.” I said.
I was familiar with Jordan from the last time I visited the San Francisco relatives. It will cost me, but it will be worth it.
I checked out Facebook and fired off another text to Dar as I waited for my cocktail.
“Prime rib while riding the rail tonight. Tough eats, but we hoboes have to do the best we can.”
She fired back immediately. “LOL. You deserve it honey after the day you’ve had. Sure you wouldn’t rather fly next time?”
“I’ll give it some deep thought.” I sent back.
“Please do. Let’s talk tomorrow morning, Gnite.”
My drink arrived and I took a slow sip and let the warm smooth whiskey set in my mouth. I relaxed immediately. The bread and Honey butter really hit the spot, so I slouched a bit and gazed out at the shadowy terrain. I had gotten past the day’s excitement, but that poor woman’s death still haunted me.
It smelled like foul play to me, and my writer’s nose is usually quite acute, but what could I do? I had no proof and could only offer a wild stab at what I thought had happened. Perhaps if I had thought to collect her glass before I left the car, I could have had it tested for poison. But I didn’t so that was that.
I glanced at the young man across from me. He still had his nose in his book. I caught A glimpse of the jacket and couldn’t believe what this guy was reading. The Rise and fall of the Third Reich was about the last book I had expected to see.
I don’t know why I was so taken aback. We live in a free society and can read and believe in whatever we wish. I felt a bit ashamed of myself for feeling so judgmental. I’ve always taken pride in being an unbiased liberal minded person. If this guy was interested in Nazi Germany, so be it.
My dinner was magnificent. The thick slab of meat was drenched in warm brown Au jus and the aroma was glorious. Jeffrey, I finally introduced myself to my server, poured a sample of the wine for my approval. It was better than I remembered and asked him to pour away.
I sliced off a piece of fatty meat from the end of my rib, dipped it in the horseradish sauce and slowly savored its slightly sharp salty flavor. I must have moaned out loud, because the young gentleman glanced up and smiled as I enjoyed my repast. I smiled back and toasted him with my wine, but he quickly dove back into his book.
I had Jeffery box up about a third of my rib and cork my half bottle of wine for later and asked to see the dessert menu. German chocolate cake with strong Columbian blend coffee was perfect. I texted another picture to Dar.
“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
She didn’t text back. Probably out to Dim Sum with Tom and Karen.
“Did you enjoy the Chocolate cake?” The young gentleman asked in a thick German accent.
I was a bit startled. “Why yes, it was delicious.” I said.
He said he didn’t want to bother me while I was eating, but asked if I would care to join him for a cordial in the bar car. My curiosity kicked in, so I accepted his friendly invite.
He introduced himself as James. We sat facing each other on an angle in two swivel chairs. I ordered my usual snifter of B&B and he had a Schnapps. There was a small table between us so he placed his book facing me as if he wanted me to see the title.
“Are you interested in Hitler’s Germany?” I asked.
He leaned in and said that he was, but not as I may be thinking.
We sat and drank for quite a while and actually opened up to each other. At first he seemed a bit cautious, but as I exposed my background as recently retired and now pursuing a writing career, he relaxed and explained what he meant by his comment.
He assumed that, his accent revealed him as a Nazi sympathizer, but he was quite the reverse. His grandparents were Polish Jews and had perished in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. He had devoted his life to tracking down a certain German soldier that he believes had stolen an heirloom that belonged to his Nanna, as he put it. The book was used to draw interest to him. I told him it worked quite well.
The heirloom was a locket with a clam shell case and an opal attached to the outside with a gold chain. Inside was a picture of his mother as a young girl. She had escaped to London during the war and was dying of cancer. He wanted to retrieve the locket before she passed.
His story fascinated me. He was a history professor at Boston College and his recent research led him to believe that someone on this train had the locket. He didn’t go into detail of how he tracked the locket down, only that he didn’t know who had it. He asked for my help, just as an observer. I agreed, that I would keep my eyes open and let him know if I spotted it.
We shook hands and he left the bar car. I still had half my drink, so I just sat back for a while contemplating my next move. I felt rejuvenated and excited. I really wanted to help this guy. It was getting late, about 11:00 and the bar closed, so I headed back to my room.
Wait a minute. What am I doing? There’s no way I can sleep. I’ve got some snooping to do. This was the perfect opportunity to check out necks. If someone was actually wearing the locket, I may be able to find it with a little covert recon in the coach section. I dropped off my leftovers box and wine in my cabin and headed for the forward cars. Here we go again.
I pulled out my phone and held it in my hand and kept glancing at it as I walked slowly from car to car. I felt that I would look less conspicuous with something in my hand. Some people were facing forward and others backward, so I had to check everyone facing me first, then come back to check the others. There were six coach cars and the train was almost full.
My search took about 30 minutes. I saw scarves, gold crosses, medallions and one gothic looking woman with a turquoise tarantula on a serpentine chain, but no locket. I actually felt disappointed. I thought for sure I would solve this case in short order.
I finally made my way back to my cabin by about midnight. My bed had been turned down with a chocolate placed caringly on my pillow. I really love first class. The last stop I heard called was Glasgow, still in Montana. According to my trip schedule that was stop #23 out of 40. I had a full day and night to find the locket.
There was nothing to look at out my window, just darkness so I turned in. The bed was surprisingly comfy. I lied there for a while going over the day’s events thinking how cool it was sleeping on a train. I started to send another text, but decided I would talk to Dar in the morning. The rhythmic clickety-clack and swaying of the train slowly lulled me to sleep.
I awoke several times overnight. This private lavatory was well worth it, especially at my age. As I lifted my shade the sun came pouring into my room. It was about 7A.M. We were pulling into the Shelby Montana station. This was stop #26.
I had a breathtaking view of the Rockies. This is the portion of the trip I was really looking forward to. The tracks took a northern route through western Montana. I took a nice steamy shower and dressed for breakfast. One more time to the dining car.
This time it was packed. The server at the car entrance took my name and gave me a silent pager that would light up when a table became available. I asked if they would seat me with someone, but it was against policy. When I traveled abroad it was standard procedure to sit together at tables. You could choose to converse with your table mates or just mind your own business. But not today. We Americans really do value or private space.
My pager lighted up after a short 10-minute wait. I was seated at a double table again, but on the other side of the car. I chose to ride forward. It just seemed more natural. The views were stunning from both sides. The breakfast staff was different than lunch and dinner. Jeffery was not on duty.
My server was a nice looking middle-aged woman and appeared to be Native American. She had a ruddy complexion and strong facial features. She brought hot coffee and water and introduced herself as Amanda. I asked if there were any breakfast specials.
Amanda explained that she was a native of the Crow tribe and they had baked a traditional Bannock Bread and had some Baalappia berry pudding. I had no idea what that was, but I felt adventurous so I asked for some of her best Bannock Bread and a side of Baalappia pudding.
I also ordered an omelet with goat cheese and Canadian bacon in it, a side of buffalo sausage links and a large orange juice. What the hell, all my meals were included with my ticket, so I might as well pig out.
The Bannock Bread was two thick slices of toasted wheat bread, but was very dense in texture. I was told by Amanda that the Baalappia was made from a mixture of fresh gooseberries, juneberries and strawberries. I spread the pudding on the warm bread. It was quite good, but also very filling. I only ate one piece and still could only eat half of my omelet.
I headed back to my cabin after breakfast to give Dar a call and update her on my late night Nazi hunter caper. I didn’t realize that I was still on Mountain Time, an hour earlier than her. She was not pleased, as she wanted to sleep in a bit.
I told her all about James and the locket he was searching for. She thought I was making it all up at first. This train travel was just too much. She was furious when I told her what I was involved in and told me to stay out of the affair completely. I tended to agree with her. There was no telling what this nut job was really up to. I promised I would stay low keyed for the rest of my trip.
My large breakfast left me a bit lethargic, so I stayed in my cabin for the next couple hours, fired up my laptop and did a little writing about my exasperating trip. As I glanced out my window I was stunned to see a huge herd of wild Buffalo. It seemed like the panoramic views went on forever. I can surely understand why they call this ‘Big Sky” country. We were chugging through the southern regions of Glacier National Park. It was truly magnificent. I didn’t get much writing done, but it was worth it.
I was feeling Claustrophobic, so I stepped out and asked one of the porters if it was possible to exit the train and reboard at one of the stops.
“Didn’t you read the brochure at breakfast about our special luncheon today? We will be stopping for an hour in East Glacier for a picnic.” He said. We should be there around 1:30. It is a small depot, but is open during the summer months.”
That sounds perfect. I can really use some fresh air and a little leg stretching. I washed up and tried to dress the part in my jeans and plaid cotton shirt.
I could see a gigantic white tent with picnic tables setup behind the old depot building as we pulled into the East Glacier station. The temperature was in the low 80’s with clear sunny skies and low humidity. Perfect, I thought.
As we passengers detrained, we were directed through the Depot and out the back to the six seat picnic tables. There were no class sections so I took a seat at the end of a vacant table. Each table had a red and white checkered table cloth with a bouquet of fresh red geraniums, and the place settings had blue cloth napkins white dinner plates and silverware. On each plate was placed a pewter mug and a checkered kerchief for each guest to wear around their neck. I was most impressed with the festive ambience.
The servers were local town’s people so the train staff was allowed to join the passengers for the repast. Jeffrey and Amanda took the two seats across from me. They were joined by a young black man and the attractive server from the lounge car. I saw James walking by and asked him to join us. He sat down between me and the young man.
I introduced James as a traveler I had met in the lounge car, and I was stunned when Jeffrey introduced Amanda as his wife and the young man and woman as his children.
“I’d like you to meet my son Michael and daughter Sarah.” He said with a proud grin.
I tried not to act too surprised. Michael was a dead ringer for his father but Sarah was fair with bright red hair. She could not possibly be of the same DNA as Jeffrey or Amanda.
“How very nice to meet you all.” I said. What a lovely surprise.”
“Yes.” Said James. “How nice to meet you and your beautiful family.”
When our table was called to the buffet line we filled our plates with barbecued ribs, smoked sausage, corn on the cob, baked beans and cornbread. Our server poured sweet tea into our pewter mugs upon our return. It was scrumptious.
I kicked off a conversation explaining that I was on my way to Seattle to see my wife and that this had been quite an adventurous excursion thus far. Jeffrey explained that the parachute stunt was something they have been doing for several seasons now and Sarah expressed her deepest sympathy for my having to experience the demise of the young lady in the lounge car.
James was seated a place down and across from Sarah. I was taken aback when he rudely asked her about her genealogy. These are modern times and mixed relationships are an accepted reality. He had no right to pry into the family relationships.
Jeffrey quite eloquently took the reins of the conversation. He explained that his first wife had passed away shortly after the birth of Michael. He had met Amanda years ago as they both worked for the railroad. They fell in love, got married and adopted Sarah as a young teenager. The four of them are now employed by Amtrak and thoroughly enjoy the closeness of their working/family relationship.
James apologized for being so forward. He said that he was a private investigator and it was in his nature to ask the awkward question sometimes. He asked to be excused as he got up and headed for the dessert table. Our picnic lunch was topped off with hot apple pie ala-mode coffee and a brief patriotic concert from the local high school band.
“All aboard,” came the cry once more from the conductor. The train left East Glacier at exactly 2:30. I love punctuality, and also enjoyed the wonderful surprise luncheon.
As I arrived back at my cabin, James was waiting for me at my door. He wanted to talk to me in private, so I invited him in.
“What is it?” I asked.
He told me that he thought Sarah was wearing his Grandmother’s locket.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He didn’t get a very good look at it because Sarah had tied her kerchief around her neck just as he got a glimpse of it. He explained that was why he so rudely pried into her past.
“I must get a closer look at it,” he said.
We decided to meet in the lounge car for cocktails before dinner. Perhaps Sarah will be wearing it.
James returned to his section and I tried to relax for a while by returning to my writing. I found it impossible to concentrate. My mind started racing once again.
What if Sarah is wearing the locket? What will James do? Dar is right; this is none of my business. Who knows what type of whacko James is? I need to just back off. I’ll meet James for cocktails and tell him that I don’t want anything to do with this.
I sat back and gazed out my cabin window and finally started to relax. I started to daydream of the lovely evening Dar and I will have on top of the Space Needle. The views must be stunning from up there. I’m a bit surprised she picked that restaurant. She is afraid of heights and even long elevator rides. Hopefully she won’t change her mind when she realizes how high it is. Perhaps we should meet at a bar before dinner so I can prime her with a couple courage building cocktails. I decided to send her a text.
“Hi kiddo gr8 lunch today, picnic outside at east glacier. BBQ with all the fixins. R we still on 4 the needle? How bout we have a drinkepu first at ground level.”
What was that? It felt as if the brake had been applied. Are we slowing down? We can’t be at the next stop already. The train slowly came to a halt.
We were on a slight bend so I could see the whole train out my window. There were two state police cars with their lights flashing next to what looked like an old abandoned depot. Someone is being escorted off the train in handcuffs. Wait a minute! Is that James? Oh my God, it is.
I sat back on my couch and tried to collect myself. Who was James really and what has he done? No. It’s none of my business. Just let it go, I told myself. I just have one more night and half a day and I’ll be in Seattle. Stay cool and everything will be fine.
I started to text Dar, but decided not to tell her about the arrest of James. It would only worry her further. I decided to go to the lounge car for a cocktail. I really, really needed a drink!
There were quite a few passengers in the sightseeing area and to my dismay, Jeffrey’s son, Michael, was bartending. I was hoping to check out Sarah’s neck for the locket, but she was not on duty. I took a seat on the bar stool nearest to the corner so I could talk with Michael.
I ordered a shot of Jack Daniels and a pint of Killian’s Red and asked Michael if he would like something as he served the other patrons.
“No thanks.” He said. “I’m not allowed to drink on the job.”
“How about a soda or cup of coffee,” I said.
“I‘ve got my water right here, thanks anyway,” said Michael as he took a swig from his bottle of Dasani.
“So, I saw your friend James get pulled off the train and arrested. What do you think he was up to?” he said.
“He was not my friend, just an acquaintance I met at dinner the other night.” I said firmly.
“I don’t know any more about him than you do.”
I must have raised my voice a bit as Michael gave me a startled look so I changed the subject.
“That luncheon picnic was quite pleasant. Are there any other little surprises before we arrive in Seattle?’
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Michael. “Although I’m sure you will enjoy the dinner menu this
“I can hardly wait. Everything has been top-notch so far.” I said.
“Will Sarah be serving in the dining car?” I
“No just my father and Mother. Sarah is back on duty here after dinner. Why do you
“No reason, I just wanted to say goodbye and thank her for her service before the end of my trip. Perhaps I’ll stop by for a night cap later.” I
I finished my beer and headed on back to my cabin. We had a scheduled stop in Spokane, Washington, where many people got off and on the train. This is where you would either go north to Seattle or take the southern route to Portland. This train was going north.
I waited in my cabin until 8:30 so I could be one of the last to be served at dinner. I knew I should let it go, but I needed to see Sarah later in the lounge car, hoping that it would be a bit voider of patrons. I just had to see if she was wearing the locket.
The dining car had been changed to a Cantonese motif. There were red table cloths with paper lanterns at each table. The plates were gold trimmed with a delicate pagoda scene in the middle with a matching soup bowl and porcelain spoon. I couldn’t wait to see the menu.
The fare was “A Taste of China Town.” There was a choice of duck, orange chicken or egg foo jung with several appetizers and soups, but the best part, in my opinion was the Dim Sum menu on the flip side of the menu.
Jeffrey greeted me wearing a black robe over his white shirt and red bowtie.
“Good evening sir, nice to see you again. Would you like to start with your usual slightly neat Jameson?”
“Hello Jeffrey. Yes, that would be great, and I will be ordering from the Dim Sum menu tonight.” I said.
The Dim Sum selections were a sampling of the most popular items. When Jeffrey returned with my cocktail I ordered one of everything on the menu, a cup of chicken egg drop soup, a carafe of Saki and hot tea with dinner.
I was, once again completely blown away. Everything was seasoned perfectly and tastefully served in small brightly colored dishes. I stuffed myself and savored every bite. I finished my last sip of Saki and headed for the lounge car where I would hopefully be able to see Sarah.
When I entered the car, it was empty. Sarah was not tending the bar and there was no one at the snack area either. The car was completely vacant. I strolled to the end of the car and sat on the last stool as I did earlier that day when Michael was on duty.
Suddenly the door opened and Sarah came staggering through the door holding her side. There was blood stained on her dress.
“Help me please! I’ve been stabbed!” she cried out.
“Oh my God, Sarah,” I yelled!
I jumped off the bar stool, but she fell to the floor before I could catch her. As I bent down to help her she held up her hand and said, “Take this to my father, don’t let anyone have it.”
It was the locket that James was searching for.
“Yes, I will.” I said. But I must get help. I put the locket in my pants pocket.
As I got up to get help the car went black. All the lights went out. I stumbled around trying to find the door to the Dining car, but I felt someone grab onto my leg. I turned and struggled to get them to let go, but the grip just became tighter. I heard the door open, and someone entering the car. Suddenly the lights came back on.
I was totally confused. The car was full of people with party hats and balloons yelling surprise surprise. What the hell was going on? Sarah was standing next to me smiling. The girl who jumped from the train with the exploding parachute was standing on the bar waving at me and the man with the girl who died at the Stanley Depot stop were also there, but she was alive.
I looked toward the snack area and saw James with Jeffrey, Michael and Amanda. They were laughing hysterically and pointing at me. Was I hallucinating?
Finally, it all came together. The Door opened and in walked Dar.
“Hi honey. Happy 4th of July!” she said slyly.
She walked up to me and gave me a big hug.
“Got ya.” She said.
“What? Are you kidding me? What are you doing here? You’re meeting me in Seattle at the Space needle.” I was yelling and smiling and cocking my head and waving my arms.
“You couldn’t get me up in that damn Needle thing for a million bucks, she said. I’ve been planning this for months. I just boarded the train in Spokane.”
“No way, you set me up? This whole trip was a setup? No one died or got arrested? Sarah wasn’t stabbed and James isn’t a Nazi hunter? You are good, really good.” I said.
“Thank you dear. I aim to please.” Dar said with a wry grin.
“What now?” I said.
“Now we have that night cap and get a good night sleep. We have to finish our trip down the coast starting tomorrow.”
“Not so fast slick. What do you mean; ‘you’ve been planning this for months’? You’ve got some splanning to do Lucy!” I said as I shook my finger at her.
The train staff brought in some snack platters and popped open some bottles of Champagne. Dar grabbed a couple flutes and sat me down in a chair.
“May I have everyone’s attention please? I’d like to propose a toast, she began. I’d like to thank all of you for helping me pull off the scam of the century. You have no idea how much fun this has been. And to my ever curious, always skeptical, wonderfully gullible husband, I’d just like to say, Honey, I got you! I got you! I got you!”
Everyone in the car clanked their classes and gave me a rousing round of “For he’s a Jolly good Fellow. “I dutifully took a drink and also thanked them for the surprise.
I grabbed Dar by the hand and pulled her gently into the chair beside me.
“Okay, start talking. How did you do it,” I asked?
“Well, you know how we’ve been planning this retirement trip for at least a year now, and you didn’t want to fly, and we couldn’t both afford to take the train?”
“Yes, yes I do remember that.” I said in a slow agreeing manner.
“And remember you said that you were afraid it might be a bit boring, traveling all that way by yourself,” she said.
“Uh huh,” I nodded.
“Well, when I told Tom and Karen about it they came up with a great idea. There downstairs tenant in their house in San Francisco is an executive for Amtrak. He had been thinking about ways to incorporate some entertainment on his longer trips, like perhaps a murder mystery train or something along those lines. So, he thought this would be a great opportunity for a test run,” said Dar.
“So, Tom and Karen and you decided I would be the guinea pig” I said.
“Well, yes, honey. All the players were Amtrak employees. Don’t you think they did a great job?” Dar looked at me as she once again raised her glass for approval.
“Yes, they did a marvelous job, I said. But how did they pull it off? How did the parachute girl get back on the train, and I saw them take the dead girl off and put her in an ambulance, yet there she is, with her husband, having a snack and some champagne, and what about James? He was arrested at some broken down depot in the middle of nowhere. I need details, more details” I said waving my arms.
“Well, allow me to introduce you to someone. This is James Weinstein, said Dar as she pulled James closer to us. I’d like you to meet my husband, Woody.”
“Yes, I know James, so what,” I said.
“Perhaps this will help,” said James as he handed me his business card.
It had an Amtrak logo on it and read Vice President of Marketing, with a San Francisco address.
“Your wife is quite a creative individual, said James. When she and her cousins, Tom and Karen, approached me with their proposal to scam you, I couldn’t resist them. It all fell into place with my plans for more entertaining passage on the Empire Builder line.”
“I see, I said. What a minute, what happened to your German accent?”
“Vell you zee, it cumz und goes zometimes,” said James with a snicker. I played Captain von Trapp in my high school version of ‘The Sound of Music” and love to try out my fake accent.
“Please tell me more; I can’t wait to feel more stupid than I do already,” I said as I crossed my arms.
A waiter came by with a tray of filled Champagne glasses. All three of us grabbed another flute.
“So, let’s start with your parachutist. James gestured to the girl standing next to the bar. That is the twin sister of “Jumping Jane Stuart”, who has been performing that jump for us the last three summers. She is a part of the wait staff. That’s right, she never left the train,” James continued.
“Sir, you scared the crap out of me with that one, I said. So, how in the world did the dead girl and her husband get back on, I asked?
“What you saw from your cabin window was a body bag filled with pillows being put into a rented Bell Ambulance. Their names are William and Betty. William is a porter in the forward coach section and Betty is our chef,” he said.
“So, who else was in on it,” I asked?
“Jeffrey, Amanda, Michael and Sarah are who you were told they are. They are also a part of the Amtrak family. So, there you have it, any questions,” asked James?
Yes, just one. I saw you in handcuffs, being loaded into a squad car. How did you pull that one off?”
“A nice contribution to the local Policeman’s fund helped with that. I simply waited a few minutes and re-boarded, just as the train started up again, said James raising his eyebrow. So, are we good?”
“We are very good,” I said.
“I have just one more thing, said James reaching into his inside coat pocket. As I said, your wife is very creative, as well as quite a shrewd negotiator. Please allow me to present you with a one way, first class, ticket for two, on the “Empire Builder” from Seattle to Chicago. You can use it anytime, or cash it in for face value, if you wish. Thanks again for being such a good sport, Woody. It’s been a real pleasure.” said James graciously.
“Thank you, James. I really appreciate your generous gift,” I said.
I turned to Dar with an astonished look on my face.
“Wow, I said, you are the best!”
I clanked her glass and we downed the last of our Champagne.
“Here’s to you, and your cockamamie plan,” I said.
“Thanks honey, but there is one last thing. I believe you have something in your pocket,” she said.
I reached into my pants pocket. Sarah’s locket, I thought to myself.
“Open it,” said Dar.
The locket was just cheap costume jewelry. Inside on the left it read, “Empire Builder 7-4-2015”, on the right it simply said “Got ya!”