Friday, April 30, 2021

  Leave a Message

by JED O'Day

Northern Virginia 

FBI agent Star Cherokee drove her electric Rivian R1S sport utility vehicle out through Quantico’s guard gates, under the I-95 overpass, past the Quantico National Cemetery, through the hairpin back roads of Prince William County, and past intelligent agencies safe houses known to but a very few, very special people. She was headed to the FBI Northern Virginia Resident Office outside Manassas at the request of her boss when her personal cell phone rang.  Ram, the love of her life, a 100-pound military trained German Shepherd, who had saved her butt on multiple occasions, sat in the back of the SUV and growled. It was unusual for Ram to growl and it sent a chill down Star’s spine, so she let the call go to voicemail.  She thought, Ram has an uncanny sixth sense about these things.

She brought her SUV to a stop where the two-lane winding back road teed onto a four-lane highway at Route 234. Star turned left, headed north, and waited until she hit a stop light before checking to see who the call was from and why Ram was so concerned. Failing to recognize the number, she checked voicemail for a message. The light turned green just as the message started playing on her Bluetooth.

The voicemail was mesmerizing.

Star pulled over to the side of the road and listened to it three times. “Ram,” she said, “You called that one right. That message is certainly unusual.”

She put her SUV back in drive and continued her commute until she pulled into her destination’s parking lot. She attached Ram’s leash to his collar and passed through security in somewhat of a trance.  The FBI had authorized Star to use her K9 as a tool of her trade.

She was thinking about what she should say to her boss about the call. 

Cyber Division Special Agent Rusty Winemiller’s first floor office door was open, so Star knocked on his door frame to get his attention.  “May I come in?”

Winemiller did not look up, instead, he looked at his watch. He said, “You’re kidding, right? You’re five minutes early. I didn’t expect the end of the world to come so soon.”

Star said, “Wasn’t it you who taught me to change my pattern to be less predictable?”

“Maybe so, but when have you ever listened to me before?”

Star said, “I listened to you when you explained that it is best to get right to the point. I know you called me here to give me a new assignment, but I want to tell you about a call I just received on my cell phone while on the way here. Listen to this.”

Hello, Star. I am going to kill a man who has managed to avoid justice for his crimes. I tell you this so that you will investigate not only me but also the motive for my transgression and why I chose this victim. In time, you will come to understand why I selected you with whom to share this information. I trust you will get to the bottom of it.”

Ram growled again at the sound of the person’s voice who left the message.

At the end of the recording Star pushed stop and said, “That’s the entire message. Intriguing, don’t you think, Rusty? And why do you think he sent this message to me?”

Winemiller, a paraplegic, wheeled his electric wheelchair around his desk without responding.

Star said, “What do you mean, ‘That’s a stupid question?’”

Special Agent Rusty Winemiller stopped his wheelchair, pulled off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, lifted his gaze toward his protégé, and made eye contact with Star’s penetrating blue eyes, but said nothing.

Noticing the look of disapproval on his face, Star shifted uncomfortably on her feet, and ran her hands through her curly auburn hair. She said, “Sorry, I promised you I wouldn’t do that, didn’t I?”

“It was a condition of our agreement. We agreed that I would accept you back into the Bureau if you never use your special skill of reading minds on me. I’ll eliminate all our in-person conversations and communicate with you only remotely if it happens again.”

“Yes, sir.” Star replied in a chastened tone.

Rusty continued, “The reason I think your question is stupid is because your history is well known. I’d reach out to you, too, if I wanted something investigated.  You may only be 25 years old, but few people have access to more intelligent resources than you do. Your parents, Tucker and Maya, are world famous problem solvers. Your relationship with Tank and Jolene Alvarez, owners of America’s premier security and private detective agency is tweeted about daily by thousands, and your year as Assistant Press Secretary in the White House gave you national facetime. Don’t you realize how famous and influential you are? Of course, this guy wants you involved.

“Star, we need to take this to the Criminal Justice Division - this may not a cybercrime” Winemiller said solemnly.

Star said, “How do you know this guy didn’t reach out to me because he knows I work in the FBI cyber division now?”

Rusty wheeled back behind his desk, punched a few strokes on his keyboard and asked, “What’s his phone number; the one that popped up on your incoming cell phone screen?”

She gave it to him.

He punched in the number into his computer and waited for roughly two minutes during which time he petted Ram to reinforce that they were friends. Better to be Ram’s friend than not.

Finally, Special Agent Winemiller said, “Your caller’s name is Colby John Manion of Blytheville, Arkansas. He is a retired Air Force Colonel who has stage four pancreatic cancer. He sponsors a blog critical of the government’s investigation into the 2017 Las Vegas massacre where he lost a granddaughter attending the outdoor country music festival.”

Winemiller continued to read the background information on Manion and said, “Star, I’ll bet he’s going to kill someone associated with the Las Vegas massacre; it could be someone he suspects is responsible for the shooting, or maybe someone who he suspects covered up the crime.”

Star asked, “Sir, did you say he has a blog page? Doesn’t that mean it could be a cybercrime?”

Rusty said, “It would be a stretch for me to authorize an investigation into the person who made that call, but what you don’t know is that the assignment I was about to give you may well dovetail with the call you received today from this Manion fellow. I want you to investigate the alarming increase in murder committed by senior citizens. We think there might be an organization out there encouraging terminally ill seniors to commit vigilante type crimes through email, social media, or ordinary telephone contact.  People at the end of their lives have less to lose. We’ve dubbed this development the “Deadly Gray” phenomenon.

Star asked, “What do you mean by alarming increase in murder by seniors?”

Winemiller sat back in his chair. “The murder rate by men and women over the age of 65 has quadrupled over the past five years. Most of the murders are committed by people seeking revenge for some injustice in their lives. It sounds to me like Manion fits the mold.”

“Seventeen murders were committed this week alone by seniors. I want you to investigate whether or not there is a common thread.”

Star said coyly, “Let me guess, Congress is afraid members will be targeted by this group called Deadly Gray if, in fact, it is organized.”

Rusty Winemiller winked at her and said, “Bingo,” though he suspected Star had not deduced her assessment, but that she had again read his thoughts.

Star said, “Do I have Carte Blanche? May I use consultants?”

Rusty said, “As long as she doesn’t shoot anybody.”

Star responded, “Now look who’s reading other people’s thoughts.”

 

Quantico, Virginia 

Star scrolled through the list of 17 recent victims by alleged senior perpetrators looking for a common thread and a starting point. There seemed to be no universal theme associated with the victims. Some were famous, most were not. Some were convicted criminals, most were not. All, she thought, had to have shadows of one form or another.

Ram laid at Star’s feet.

Star said, “Ram, I don’t know where to start. Manion is not on this list. These murders occurred before Manion called me.”

Ram lifted his head off his paws but that was all.

Star continued, “Let see, all the perps are older than the Sun. It doesn’t look like any of them knew each other. I’m going to send these names to cyber research and see if the geniuses over there can find some common connection.”

“Ram, are you paying attention?”

Ram never moved a muscle.

“One of the victims was a defense attorney. I get that. I’ll cross-reference the people the lawyer defended with the old man that killed him.”

“Hmm. I see one of the victims was an MS-13 gang leader. Wow, you gotta respect an old man who would take on that challenge.”

“Another of these was a failed attempt on the Speaker of the House. I’m not going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.

“Ram, you’re not helping much.”

“Ah, here’s one you’ll like.” Ram stood up and nuzzled Star. “A Vietnam era Marine sniper placed a round through the head of a long-retired editor of the New York Times. The Marine turned himself in.”

“One of the victims of the Deadly Gray was a 31-year-old rapist on parole. The killer is a 75-year-old woman from Paris, Kentucky. Let’s see, she killed the guy in Cincinnati.  Are you ready to go for a ride?”

Ram was at the door before she finished her sentence.

And the search for answers to the mystery begins.

Jed O’Dea is an author of mystery/thrillers. See http://jedodea.com

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

A Matter of Timing



A Matter of Timing 

written & narrated by Mark Bielecki

It was a sunny Saturday morning. The birds were singing, the flowers blooming and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A perfect day to go to the beach, take in a ball game or just go for a walk in the woods. So naturally I was sitting at my desk at State Police headquarters in Lansing catching up on the paperwork I’d been putting off all week. My name is Gregg Maguire. I’m a Captain in the Michigan State Police, in charge of the Special Investigations Division.

Around 8:30 the phone rang which was unusual for a Saturday morning.. The call was from Harvey Clement, Sheriff of Montcalm county. I’d talked with Harvey off-and-on over the last couple of years, after we’d met at a police training seminar and had dinner together. I’d told him that if he ever ran across a ‘puzzler’ of a case, to give me a call.

He runs a small department out of his office in Stanton, which is a small town about 50 miles Northwest of Lansing. The Montcalm County detective squad covers 705 square miles and is stretched pretty thin working on a wide variety of cases from auto theft to drug violations. He said he had a case where a man had died and he thought that the circumstances were suspicious. He told me that none of his detectives had experience with this type of death and asked me to drive over and take a look at it.

When I got there, Sheriff Clement took me to a hunting cabin on First Lake, which is the first in a chain of lakes in the aptly named Six Lakes area. We met with a man named Louis Yeager, owner of the cabin where the person had died.

Yeager had been a friend of Sheriff Clement for years. Clement told me that they’d worked together on charity functions around the county and that Yeager was always very supportive of his department.

The dead man’s name was Fred Fortin. He & Yeager were partners in a chain of retail sporting goods stores in the Grand Rapids area.

Yeager was extremely upset. He told us that Fortin was his closest friend and they’d been business partners since the early 1980’s. He said that they’d started in a cubby hole sized space in East Grand Rapids, which had grown to three locations throughout Kent County. The stores specialized in high-end outdoor sporting apparel, fishing tackle, and hunting equipment.

I asked him to tell me exactly what had happened. He started speaking, slowly at first and said “Our business did well early on. We had a couple of premium apparel lines that no one else in town had. Lately, sales were down because the internet offered the same brands at lower prices. Fred had become very depressed. We’d both invested everything we had in the stores, so if the business failed, we would both be on the brink of bankruptcy. It was so bad that Fred even talked about committing suicide.”

He took a deep breath and continued. “I was worried about him and suggested we come up here to my cabin. I thought the fresh air, exercise, and some fishing would do him good. Help snap him out of his funk, you know. We’d been here about three days and he seemed to be improving. He wasn’t as glum as he’d been and his appetite was getting better. He wanted to have a fish-fry, complete with coleslaw and hush puppies. His ‘can do’ attitude was coming back and I thought he’d turned a corner and was ready to take on the challenges again”

“Thursday morning we decided to go fishing at a trout stream that empties into the lake. We didn’t catch anything and after a couple of hours, he said he was going to try a stream about a half mile away. I thought that was a good idea and said I was going to try a different stream, kind of in the opposite direction. We joked that if we couldn’t catch the fish, at least we’d have them surrounded. We agreed we’d meet back at the cabin around lunchtime.”

“Well, my luck changed at my new fishing spot. I’d caught my limit by 11 o’clock and started back to the cabin. As I was getting nearer the cabin, I started to sense that there was trouble ahead. Something just felt wrong and I ran the rest of the way back. When I opened the door, I saw him. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. He was sitting at the table with white foam coming out of his mouth. His face was hideously contorted, like he was in incredible pain.”

He buried his face in his hands. “That sight will haunt me forever. I’d got there not five minutes after he did and there he was – dead. Why couldn’t I have been just a few minutes earlier?”

“What else did you notice?” I asked him.

“There was a bottle of Irish whiskey on the table and a glass. Both the glass and the bottle smelled of bitter almonds and I’d seen on TV that cyanide smells like that. It made me think that it was cyanide that he took. I thought he was getting better, that he was on his way back to being his old self again. Turns out I was wrong. He’d killed himself after all!”

I then asked “Have you had any visitors to the cabin?”

“No, not since we’ve been here” Yeager replied.

“Was Fortin a smoker?”

“No”

“How were his drinking habits? Was he a heavy drinker?”

“No. He’d have a couple of glasses of Bushmills at the end of the day, but nothing excessive.”

“What about doors and windows? Were they open or closed?”

“They were all closed. Why?”

“No particular reason. Just being thorough.” I replied.

“Sheriff, let’s take a look around outside. Maybe we can find something out there”.

When we were safely outside and out of Yeager’s earshot, I turned to Sheriff Clement.

“Harvey, I know this is going to be tough for you, especially since Yeager is a friend of yours. You need to detain him as a ‘person of interest’ in the murder of Fred Fortin.”

Sheriff Clement looked aghast! “Why?” he said.

“He’s lying. He said he got back to the cabin not five minutes after Fortin did. There’s no way for him to know when Fortin returned to the cabin. I also doubt that Fortin had talked about suicide with his business partner. If you look into it, I don’t think you’ll find anyone else that Fortin talked about suicide with. Finally, take a look at their partnership agreement. I’ll bet you’ll find that in the event of a partner’s death, the surviving partner becomes the sole owner of the business. I think this is plain, old fashioned murder for profit.”

I returned to Lansing and my day-to-day duties. I spoke with Harvey again about two weeks later. Turns out I was right. The detectives hadn’t found anyone that Fred Fortin had discussed suicide with. They also got a copy of the partnership agreement which did make the surviving partner the sole owner of the business in the event of a partner’s death.

The business was actually doing quite well – sales were not down because of the internet. Profits had gone down because Yeager was skimming them into a private account using phony purchase orders to a non-existent clothing supplier. It appears that Fortin was on the cusp of discovering Yeager’s embezzling and Yeager knew his theft would soon be exposed. He murdered Fortin in an attempt to cover it up.

When the detectives confronted Yeager with the evidence, he broke down and confessed. He pled guilty to murder in the second degree with a sentence of twenty-five years to life to avoid getting life without possibility of parole.

 



Friday, April 23, 2021

 Author interview:  Larry Martin

drlarry437@gmail.com



1. Why did you write your first book?

When I went into practice as a pulmonary medicine physician, I found I really enjoyed teaching and explaining things to patients. So my first book was Breathe Easy, a Guide to Lung Diseases for Patients and Their Families. It was traditionally published by Prentice Hall. Since then I’ve written 22 books.


2. What made you get into writing in the first place?

Hard to know. Something I’ve always enjoyed doing.


3. What is your writing style?

Clear, direct, unambiguous. I write what interests me at the moment, and as a result have published books in 8 different genres, from a syllabus on music theory to a text book on pulmonary medicine, from 3 Civil War novels to a middle-grade fiction about climbing Mount Everest.


I’ve always said, if you want to be financially successful as a writer, stick to one genre. Hard to build a following when you jump around so much. But I have no regrets. I only write what interests me, not to make a living at it. After each book I wrote while in practice, my wife would joke, “Larry, keep your day job.”


4. How do you come up with your cover designs?

I get the idea, and hire a professional cover designer. We go back and forth until I am satisfied. So far I have been very happy with the covers.


5. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Energizes.


6. What are some common traps for aspiring writers?

Oh, my! There are many, depending on who you ask. Here’s three that come to mind. Not reading enough to see what good writing is and is not. Not getting good, detailed feedback on their writing, such as can be obtained in a critique group. Refusing to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to get it right.


7. What most interferes with your writing?

Desire to do other things: music, golf, vacationing, outdoors stuff. Dangerous to sit at computer all day. I could do it, but not healthy.


8. Do you write each book to stand alone or do you build a body of work with connections between the books?

Mostly the former. See answer to No. 3. The only three books connected in any way are my 3 Civil War novels, which share the same historical time period and some of the same characters.


9. What is your favorite book from another author?

No one favorite. When I was younger I used to love Isaac Asimov and science fiction. Now, I tend to read only one or two novels by the prolific popular writers, (e.g., John Grisham, Schott Turow, Robin Cook, E. L. Doctorow) and then move on. Lately I am only reading non-fiction.


10.    Do you base characters on real people and if so what do you owe them?

Not real people. I make up my own characters, who (I think) have no resemblance to actual people I know.


11.    What kind of research do you do to write your books?

INTENSIVE. I make myself an ‘expert’ on the subject I write about by extensive reading. Thus I wrote books about Scuba Diving, Music Theory, Pulmonary Physiology. For the Civil War novels I went to original sources, maps, newspapers of the period. My historical fiction books, except for the obviously fictional characters, are historically accurate. My middle-grade fiction on climbing Mt. Everest tracks one of the actual routes to the summit, though I have never been there. Just knowledge gained from research.


12.    What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters of the opposite sex?

Not knowing if you got it right. As a male, I always wonder if my portrayal of women regarding sex and love is fair or believable.


13.    How do you select the names of your characters?

Just make them up. In historical fiction, I try to use common names of the period, e.g., Belle for the heroine in one Civil War book; Gustav Heinz for a 19th century German immigrant.


14.    What was your hardest scene to write?

No one hardest, but generally scenes without dialogue are the hardest, where I have to show details to convey the setting I envision: weather, clothes, smells, sounds, etc. For me, writing dialogue is much easier.


15.    How long does it take you to write a novel?

Shortest: 3 months. Longest: 1 year.


16.    What format do you find sells best for your work, Kindle, Print or Audio?

Kindle. Have my first audio book coming out soon. But pages read on Kindle beats print books by far.

 

INTERVIEW by Sandra Olson


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

 

THE FINAL CLUE

written by Austin S. Camacho

narrated by Mark Bielecki aka Dr. Whodunit


 

“Hannibal, thank God you’re here,” Isaac said the second I stepped into the gym director’s office.

 

Isaac Ingersoll stood six foot four and weighed a good 325 pounds. It was weird to see a guy that size terrified. But when I walked in some of the terror left Isaac’s eyes. He looked like a man who had just been taken off death row. Looking down at the corpse on the floor, I hoped Isaac was right.

 

“Fascinating,” Police Detective Orson Rissik said. He was detaining everybody while they waited for the coroner. “The other three suspects called their lawyers, but Ingersoll called you, and you’re the first to arrive.”

 

“Maybe he figures he’s the one in trouble, detective.” I understood Isaac’s thinking. He was the biggest man in the room, although all four suspects were bigger than me. Their size was the reason that The Predators was such a great semi-professional football team, despite their recent slump. But size was no advantage to the players found in the building where a man was beaten and then stabbed to death.

 

The guy lying on his belly was the smallest man in the room. His face was turned toward the door. His right hand still held a death grip on the edge of the desk. His left hand was thrust under the back cover of a book apparently snatched from a collection of novels on the desk. I didn’t see a knife, but the wound on his side had surrounded him with a pool of blood.

 

I had worked with Rissik before so I knew I could push things a bit. “So, four football players in the gym but not together, right? Then somebody notices a trail of blood leading from the locker room to this office, to the guy laying over there with his hand on the last page of Patricia Cornwell’s latest bestseller.”

 

“That’s the basics,” Rissik said. “Looks to me like the vic was reaching for the phone, but couldn’t quite make it, so he grabbed a book instead.”

 

I squatted down for a closer look. The victim’s blank, empty eyes stared back at me from within dark circles. Blood from his nose and lips showed that somebody had worked him over good, but even mangled as it was, I recognized that face.

 

“You know this is Manny Simpson, right?”

 

“The gambler?” Rissik asked. “Last I heard that weasel was fixing college basketball games. Considering who we got here today, I’m thinking he’s moved on to semi-pro football.”

 

Hannibal stood to face the short lineup against the wall. “So, who DO we have here?”

 

Rissik pointed his way down the line while his suspects stood silent. “You know the white fellow, Ingersoll. He’s fullback for the Predators. This next joker is Georgie Sparks. He’s a guard. The next man is Nick Davis, the tight end. Number four, Dan Cooper, is a wide receiver.”

 

I smirked at Rissik. “I get the sports connection, but there must have been other people in the gym. Why are you only holding the football players?”

 

Rissik smirked back. “You think the book’s a coincidence?”

 

I shrugged, pulled out my pen and got down on my knees. I didn’t figure Simpson for a literary type, so it made sense that he grabbed the book to leave some kind of clue. The title told me right away why Rissik was so sure of himself.

 

“Patricia Cornwell’s best seller, Predator. Yeah, I guess him grabbing this one from the half dozen books on the desk is a pretty clear pointer.”

 

“Yeah,” Rissik said. “I figured I had a dead lock until I turned up not one but four players.”

 

I slid my pencil under Simpson’s hand and lifted it. I wanted a good look at the book’s last page. “For a crooked gambler, I hear Simpson was pretty smart. Maybe there’s more to his dying clue.”

 

Rissik crossed his arms and walked toward me. “You know, we usually solve this kind of thing just like Scarpetta in Cornwell’s books. Forensic evidence will surface.”

 

“Really? I kind of like to try to noodle out the clues and solve the puzzle myself.” I knew I was pushing Rissik’s buttons. As expected, he rose to the bait.

 

“Okay, Jones. You figure you see something I missed? You think you know who it was?”

 

In fact, I did think I knew who killed Simpson. To test my theory, I’d have to push my man to a confession.

 

I walked right up to my suspect and looked him in the eye. “I saw your last couple of games. Kind of disappointing.”

 

Nick Davis leaned forward, maintaining eye contact with me. “Nobody plays their best game every single week. But I give this team all I got.”

 

“That’s bull,” I told him. “That fumble that cost the game last week? Pretty sloppy. And what about those two passes you just couldn’t get hold of three weeks ago?”

 

“Ain’t no law against having a bad day now and again,” Davis said, backing off just a bit.

 

It was time for me to get loud. “No, but there is a law against throwing games for a gambling syndicate. What was your beef with Simpson? Didn’t he pay you enough for shaving points?”

 

Ingersoll and the other two players stepped away from Davis, glaring at him. Their stares seemed to rattle him a lot more than I could.

 

“It ain’t like that. I met Simpson today to call it quits. I just couldn’t keep on betraying the team. But he wouldn’t let go. Said he’d tell the guys what I done. I couldn’t let him do that.”

 

“So you roughed him up in the locker room,” I said.

 

Rissik whipped out a pair of cuffs and slapped them on Davis. “Then, when he wouldn’t cut you loose you stabbed him. Well, I don’t think anybody will actually miss Simpson, but from the look of your teammates’ faces, you’ll be safer in custody.”

 

While Rissik read Davis his rights, Isaac jumped at me. I gritted my teeth against the slap on the back I knew was coming, and managed to not fall over when it landed.

 

“Thanks for coming down, Hannibal,” Isaac said. “I just know that would be me in the cuffs right now if not for you.” Rissik shoved Davis into a chair, and I could see curiosity fighting grudging admiration on his face.


“Okay, spill it, Jones. What did you see on that page that tipped you that Davis was the killer?”

 

“You should have seen it yourself, Orson,” I said. “It was pretty clear that Simpson knew he was going to bleed out quick, so he snatched the book off the desk that he knew would implicate one of the players, and just had time to open it to the page he knew had words that would identify his killer.”

 

“You saying Simpson had read this novel?”

 

“No, Orson. I’m saying that Simpson knew the last page would tell us which player killed him. You know the words I mean now?”

 

Rissik cursed under his breath. “Of course. The two words that are on the last page of every book.

 

The End

 


Friday, April 16, 2021

Power 917

By Max Brower

Portsmouth, Virginia

August 4th, 1978

The phone was ringing. Mike Downing slapped at it and knocked the alarm clock off the nightstand instead. It hit the floor with an angry “clang,” and disappeared under the bed. He got the phone on the second try and held it to his ear.

“Hello?”

Next to him, Darena stirred. “Mike, who the hell is calling this late?”

“What are you talking about?” Mike asked, ignoring her. “They just left it there? Jesus Christ…okay, okay. Where? Hold on...” He turned on the bedside lamp, opened the nightstand, and fumbled for the pad and pencil. “Okay, go on.” He wrote down the location. “I got it. Find two guys and have them meet me at the yard. I don’t care who…just as long as they know how to operate the damn thing. Pay them double if you have to. No…I’ll take them myself.”

Mike stood up and stretched, his back popping audibly in the small bedroom.  

“Who was that?”

“It was John Davis. I have to go to Durham.”

“Why? What time is it?”

Mike fished under the bed and found the alarm clock. It was 12:55 AM.

#

It was five in the morning, and the sun was still an hour and a half on the other side of the horizon when Mike’s Oldsmobile pulled onto the dusty shoulder of highway 501, just outside of Durham.  Keenon Hampton, McKee Railroad’s regional manager, along with two Durham police officers, waited for him.

“Wake up,” Mike said.

Behind him, Keith Franks and Harold Garvin stirred awake.

“Are we there, yet?” Keith asked.

“We’re here.”

 “This isn’t worth double,” Harold grumbled.

Mike got out, stamped on his cigarette, and fell in alongside Keenon, who was walking towards the railroad crossing. “Where is it?” 

“About a hundred yards up the track. Those two assholes just stopped and called me collect from a pay phone up the road. No explanation. They just quit.”

“Well, they’re fired, anyway,” Mike said in disgust.  

“They better be.”

The patrol car’s window rolled down, and a sleepy-eyed officer poked his head out. “Do you guys got this? We’ve got better things to do than babysit your train all night.”

Keith waved an arm at him. “We appreciate the help, officers. We’ll take it from here.”

The cruiser’s engine came to life, and a moment later it was rolling up highway 501, a small dust cloud in its wake.

Mike turned back to the car. “Grab your shit. We got to go.”

The four men walked up the shoulder of highway 501 then turned right onto the small path that ran beside the tracks—to where Power 917 waited.

#

Keith and Harold went through the startup checklist, and a moment later, Power 917’s brand new Electro-Motive diesel engine roared to life. The engine needed to be at full operational temperature before the 917 could continue pulling the half-mile of coal cars behind her.  At least Tom and Jake had stopped the train outside of Durham, and no other crossings were blocked. That saved McKee a significant fine, although they were still being charged double time for the extra hours hogging up the line. They needed to get moving.  

Mike and Keenon walked the train, shining bright flashlights over each wheel, looking for defects or any other reason Tom Lovett and Jake Christopher had suddenly stopped and walked away.

“Are you sure there was nothing wrong with those guys?” Keenon asked. 

Mike didn’t envy Keenon’s position right now. “Nothing. They got along fine. Good guys. Punctual. They’ve done this run a hundred times. I don’t think Tom has even missed a day of work since I got here. I have no idea why they did it.”

They reached the last car and circled around to the other side of the tracks. Twenty minutes later, they climbed back into the control cabin of Power 917. 

“Did you guys find anything wrong up here?” Mike asked.

Harold shook his head. “Everything checks out fine, boss. Are you seriously telling me that Tom and Jake just up and quit? Just like that?” 

Mike looked around Power 917’s immaculately clean cabin. The controls still had their virgin shine, and the entire place smelled like a new car.  There wasn’t even the typical film of dust that the cleaners were continually fighting to keep off the controls in the other power units.

“That’s apparently what happened,” Keenon growled. “Are you sure there wasn’t anything going on with those two? They weren’t queers or anything? Maybe got into a lovers’ spat?”

Keith and Harold exchanged another glance. “Tom’s been fighting with his wife,” Keith said, “but I didn’t think it was that bad.” He motioned around.  “Maybe the place was just too clean for them.” 

Nobody laughed.

“How much longer?” Mike asked, lighting another cigarette. “We need to clear the area.”

“We’re almost ready,” Harold said, spinning his chair around to the control board.

Twenty minutes later, Mike and Keenon watched as McKee Railroad’s brand-new Power engine 917 continued south towards Charlotte, still on its maiden run.  

#

Alan Barfield and Elroy Hefter and were waiting outside of Mike’s office when he got back to the McKee rail yards. It was just after noon.

“Mike,” Alan said, anxiously. “Keenon called from Warrenton. He’s freaking the hell out. Something else happened to the 917. It’s stopped in Greensboro.” 

Greensboro was only sixty-five miles south of Durham.  

“Keith and Harold are in the hospital. You got to take Elroy and me out there right now.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mike said. “What the hell is it now? Come on, let’s go.”

#

Two weeks later, Mike knocked on Tom Lovett’s door. He looked around the small front yard of the trailer home, noting the overturned barbeque grill and a child’s baseball glove buried in the grass. 

Tom opened the door.  His eyes were bloodshot. 

“Uh…Hi, Mike.” 

“Can I come in, Tom?”

“Yea, sure.” Tom led him through the trailer’s small living room and into the kitchen. The sink was overflowing with dishes. Mike could smell rotting food and garbage.

“Where’s Amy?”

Tom tensed up and then looked around. “She’s with her mother. It’s been a bad couple of weeks.” He held up his hands in defense. “But it’s not like that, Mike. It’s only for a little bit…until I can get my shit together.”

“Tom, I want to offer you your job back.”

Tom looked at him confused. “Why would you do that?”

“But there’s a condition. We want you to you undergo a full physical examination. We’re offering the same to Jake Christopher and the others.” Mike pulled out a chair. “Have a seat, Tom.”

Tom sat.

“In case you missed it, we’ve had some issues with Power 917.”  He saw Tom cringe at the mentioned of the unit number. “Are you okay?”

Tom shook his head. “Mike, I’d rather work in the mines for the rest of my life than ever drive that engine again. I can’t do it. I’ll work double shifts or do whatever else you want, but I can’t pilot the 917 again.” He looked around the kitchen and then back at Mike. “I don’t think Jake will either.”

Mike observed Tom, looking for bullshit. He didn’t see any. 

“After you and Jake left the 917 in Durham, I drove Keith Franks and Harold Garvin out to take over. They both ended up in Greensboro Memorial Hospital…for food poisoning. Harold thinks their wives both bought the same bad cold-cuts from Dellas Market. That’s interesting considering that neither of them had lunch pails with them when I dropped them off in Durham.” 

Tom looked up. His lower lip was quivering. 

 “After that, I drove Hefter and Barfield out to cover them. Those two actually made it to Charlotte, but then they refused to bring the 917 back. They said that they would rather be fired; they’re on leave until we get to the bottom of this.”

Mike tried to look Tom in the eyes, but Tom averted his gaze again. He began fiddling with his hands. 

“What happened, Tom? We had the 914 run down to Charlotte and pull the 917 back. No problems there. They’re doing a complete teardown, trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with it. The company thinks that if they can find some sort of defect, then we can sue for the fines we’ve received, lost profit, and not to mention, six of our engineers out of commission. Do you remember smelling anything? Maybe, methane from the coal beds?”

Tom realized what Mike was asking him and nodded. “I’ll say that if you want, Mike. But I worked the mines growing up. I know what methane smells like.” 

“What about carbon monoxide, then? Did you smell exhaust?”

Tom continued to shake his head. “If you want, sure…but I didn’t smell that either. Besides, I was sitting next to the open window the whole time.”

“Well, that might be it, then—”

“No, Mike. The engine is to the rear of the cab. All that shit, methane from the coal too, would have been vented out behind us.”

“Then what the hell happened, Tom?”

Tom stopped fiddling with his hands and leveled his gaze on Mike. “We went crazy; that’s what happened. It was like being on the worst acid trip of my life, and one that wouldn’t stop. Do you know you know long it normally takes to get to Durham from Portsmouth?”

Mike thought about it. “It took me three and a half hours in my car. So, probably a little less than that, depending on the wait time to cross the James River.”

“It took us three days just to make it to Durham, Mike. Three fucking days. I’m telling you, I was looking at the clock the entire time. Three fucking days before I finally managed to pull my foot off the switch and stop the damn thing. I think if I hadn’t, I would still be driving it now.  And Jake was giggling the whole time. He wouldn’t stop—for three days he just sat there giggling. And there was whispering…”

“What whispering?”

Tom murmured something.

“What?”

“Those voices. I just wanted to rip my ears off to make them stop. They kept telling me to do horrible things—to Amy and Jason…to my mother and sisters.  They told me that I had already done other horrible things, but it would be okay once they caught and gassed me.” Tom buried his face in his hands and began to weep. “It wouldn’t shut the fuck up. And the whole time Jake was just sitting there giggling. Then he got the hiccups…it lasted for twenty hours. Twenty fucking hours.” He looked up. “It told me that if I cut Jake’s throat, it would stop the giggling—and I almost did it. Jesus Christ, I almost did—with my pocketknife.” 

“Christ, Tom.”

Tom actually managed a smile. “But sure, I think it was the methane from the coal beds. There must have been a bad valve or vent or something. I can’t afford the rent on this place, and they’ve already turned the electric off. I can’t lose Amy and Jason.”  

#

Portsmouth, Virginia

October 8th, 1978

Jack Swaney knocked on Mike Downing’s open office door.  “You wanted to see me, boss?” 

“Come in, Jack,” Mike said.

Jack stepped in but remained standing. He was a thirty-year veteran of McKee Railroad and had served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War Two, restoring rail lines in captured territory. This was back when most trains were still steam powered. Mike had handpicked him for this assignment.

“Are you ready to go?”

Power 917 was going back into service today, hauling general freight to Philadelphia. He wanted an experienced crew for this trip and had picked Jack and Carl Mellforth for the job.

“I’m ready,” Jack said and turned to leave.

“Jack, wait…”

Jack turned around and gave him a knowing look. “I’ll be fine, Mike. Everyone knows what happened with the 917, but it checked out fine. I’ve done my own inspection on it. There’s no problems—and there won’t be any. I’ll let you know how everything went after we get to Philly.” He turned to leave again.

“Jack, hold up …”

Mike walked Jack to Power 917, which was warming up and on track three.  

Carl Mellforth called down from the cab. “Here to give us a proper send off, Mike?” 

“He wants to make sure we don’t forget the train,” Jack said, turning to face Mike. He patted him on the shoulder. “Look. I know why you’re worried. But seriously; Everything’s in working order.”

Jack climbed in.

That’s the problem, Mike thought. Everything had been in working order. No defects, and now four of his employees were out of a job.

He went back to his office.

#

He got the call twenty-five minutes later.

#

Mike learned most of the details from the papers. By then, he was working for Norfolk Southern in Boston.

McKee Railroad Power Engine 917, hauling general freight between Portsmouth and Philadelphia, left the McKee rail yards at 2:08 PM. It was scheduled to change tracks and cross the James River at 3:15 PM, thirty miles away. 

It arrived almost fifty minutes early. 

The switching track was rated at 15 mph. Power 917 hit it at an estimated 145 MPH. The train derailed, continuing almost half a mile overland, and straight into the James River, pulling a quarter of its cars on top of it before sheer weight ground the rest to a halt. The pictures in the papers looked like a deformed bicycle chain. Power 917 was driven more than twenty feet below the riverbed from the sheer weight of the cars on top of it. It took a month to retrieve the power unit from the bottom of the river, along with the bodies of Jack Swaney and Carl Mellforth. The hulk was eventually sold for scrap.


    A Grand Illusion   By Lawrence Martin     drlarry437@gmail.com Published in Florida Writers Association Collection Series, “Create An Il...