The wizened stationmaster slid two rectangular slips of pasteboard partway through a narrow opening below the close-set steel bars of his diminutive depot’s ticket window. A sliding panel designed to seal the opening entirely was held aloft by a sharpened wooden stake. A couple of would-be passengers waited stoically on the other side. One wore an ankle-length mink coat. The other was casually dressed.
“Here you are, folks. My advice is don’t offer these to the conductor until after you’re aboard and the train is moving. This is a whistle stop. Unless he’s dropping off some freight, the engineer will be mighty anxious to get away from here as quickly as possible. Can’t say I blame him.”
“Why’s that?” the male passenger asked.
“There’s a full moon tonight.”
“I’m not rightly sure how to describe the forest in these parts. It’s either enchanted or haunted, or maybe a combination of the two. Either way, there are some unsavory critters that prowl around after dark. You’ll want to be long gone by then. The train is your only way out.”
“Can’t we call a taxi?” the female passenger wondered out loud, revealing her voice was somewhat husky.
“No, ma’am. There are no cell towers hereabouts. Calling the nearest cab company would be a waste of time, anyway. There’s only one driver and judging by the way he spun his wheels when he left, I doubt you could persuade him to return under any circumstances.”
“Aren’t you concerned about your own safety?”
“Nope. Most days—out of either abject terror or sheer boredom—I’m of half a mind to put in for a transfer. I reckon my reduced cranial activity and my thick skull keep me off the menu for zombies. They’d need a jackhammer to pick my brain. Besides, I have a camp cot in here and plenty of food and drink. I won’t budge until morning.”
The woman dabbed her nose with a tissue, then persisted with her questioning. “Aren’t you afraid one of those creatures with supernatural strength will break in while you’re sleeping?”
“Not really. Bigfoot is the only real threat in that department and I’ve made my peace with him. When you get to know him, he’s like a big cuddly teddy bear. All I have to do is keep him well supplied with flea powder.”
The stationmaster gently pushed his garlic necklace to one side so he could take hold of a silver fob and pull a railroad watch out of a vest pocket. “Engine Thirteen should be here before long. To make doubly sure you don’t get left behind, you’d best wait outside on the platform.”
The woman grabbed her escort’s arm. “I can’t do this, Dan!”
“What’s wrong with your lady friend?”
“Rosie has serious issues with heights,” the jeans-wearing gent said. “She won’t even turn up her nose to show disdain for something she doesn’t like. Instead, she points to her sniffer and then points toward the ceiling. Dips are okay by her on the dance floor but not lifts. She’s even reluctant to pick up her feet. She does more foot dragging than a teenager told to take out the trash. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen her trip over a painted line. She prefers synthetic footgear, but if fashion demands genuine leather, she wants it to come from thin-skinned animals.”
“I’ll bet she prefers stores with a bargain basement.”
“You might think so. I’ll say this, if she ever found herself in one, she wouldn’t want to leave. Getting out for most people would be a simple matter of using stairs or an elevator. Rosie would require general anesthesia and a stretcher.”
“I can understand her wanting to take the train instead of flying, but what’s eating at her now? Did I say something earlier that frightened her?”
Dan nodded his head. “Wearing platform shoes is the stuff of nightmares for Rosie. The immediate prospect of actually ascending an authentic platform—wide awake and on her own two feet—scares the living daylights out of her.”
“She can rest easy then. Our freight platform is level with the threshold of the depot’s backdoor. Getting on the train will be as easy as falling off a log.”
Rosie let out a gasp.
“Poor choice of words?”
Dan left the question unanswered. He took Rosie’s arm and gently guided her toward the back of the depot. Without missing a step, he briefly glanced at the stationmaster and gave him a broad grin and a thumbs up.
The stationmaster was pleased. Apparently, the practical joke for which he’d been generously compensated was a rousing success. From Dan’s point of view, at least.
The stationmaster was also puzzled. He noticed the woman was visibly shaking. Was she trembling from genuine fear of the fantastic creatures he’d described? Had his use of realistic props—most of which were already in place and the others near at hand—somehow heightened her anxiety to a breaking point? Had he told his supposedly tall tales with a tad too much conviction? Surely, he was not entirely to blame. He had to wonder, though. Why had she consented to go on a scenic excursion that involved winding around an assortment of rugged peaks on a narrow-gauge right-of-way that overlooked deep valleys and rocky gorges? Such a trip, by its very nature, had to be anathema to someone with acrophobia. Yet, there she was. Had she been coerced?
Rosie looked in his direction. In routine situations, the stationmaster prided himself on interpreting body language. This time was an exception. He could not find a clear meaning in the young woman’s somewhat pinched facial expression. Was she in on the joke? A willing participant? If so, was her shuddering an attempt to suppress laughter? Was she experiencing a frisson of forbidden delight? Was there any other rational explanation? Maybe it was something he’d only heard about, but never actually seen before today. Perhaps she was scared silly.
The couple exited quietly through the backdoor. Out of sight, out of mind. They were no longer the stationmaster’s concern.
He had his own phobic priorities. To keep out witches, he needed to replace the salt displaced from his thresholds by the shuffling feet of the ticket buyers. It would be dark soon. Maybe tonight would be the night—at long last—when he received a special visitor. He wanted to be ready, in any case. With that in mind, the stationmaster went to his storage cabinet to fetch a large tin of flea powder. It was easy to find. The clearly-marked container was on a mid-level shelf right next to his dusty carton of silver bullets.
With Dan gently hoisting her by her arm on one side and the conductor similarly assisting her on the other, Rosie had no choice but to board the train. Dan followed suit—under his own power. The trainman waved his arm vigorously before he, too, climbed aboard.
The locomotive picked up steam.
The obsequious conductor gave the new passengers the VIP treatment. After he punched their tickets, he led them though a couple of carriages to an open-sided observation car. “Best seats in the house.”
Rosie stood in the middle of the aisle swaying slightly in sync with the movement of the railway car. The air rushing in from the outside mussed her hair. “Could you please close the windows?”
“There aren’t any. Dirty glass interferes with the view. This is a photographer’s paradise. There’s nothing between you and the beautiful sights below except crystal-clear mountain air.”
Rosie shuddered. “I’ve seen enough.” She took a step toward the car they’d just left. Dan put up a restraining hand.
“I beg to differ,” the conductor said. “The best is yet to come. Before you know it, the engineer will pause our journey with this car stopped smack dab in the middle of a trestle overlooking a mountain stream. From your vantage point up here, you’ll have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the moonlight reflecting off the water. I can’t think of anything more romantic than that. In my opinion, your husband planned your second honeymoon perfectly.”
Rosie appeared to surrender to the inevitable. All the tenseness left her body. Her shoulders slumped. All the fight went out of her. Although she remained standing, she appeared to shrink in place. She closed her eyes. “Hold me tight,” she whispered.
“I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone now. I’ll lock the door behind me so you won’t be disturbed.”
Dan pointed in the opposite direction.
The conductor winked. “The other car is empty.”
Whether a deliberate misstatement on the trainman’s part, or not, that was an outright lie. The second adjoining car was far from empty.
Moments later, the occupancy of the observation car more than doubled. Dan was a bit slow on the uptake. He addressed a man who stepped out of the shadows. “Why are you in here already? We haven’t stopped yet.”
“Change of plans. We need to make some prior arrangements.”
“Why do you say we? You’re supposed to do the deed yourself. That’s what I’m paying you for.”
“And quite handsomely, I might say. You solicited a hitman. I brought a hit squad at no extra charge. I thought you’d be happy.”
“Well, I’m not. I didn’t want any witnesses,” Dan said.
“Oh? I’m a witness. Were you planning to get rid of me at some point? After I’d done your dirty work, I assume.”
“You’re twisting my words. I didn’t want extra people involved because I didn’t want to run the risk of being blackmailed.”
“That won’t happen. There may not be any honor among thieves, but we’re in a different category. We fulfill our contracts. Our reputations depend on it.”
“Who’s paying your helpers?”
“Not me, although I helped broker the deal. Since we have geographically overlapping assignments, we car pooled.”
Dan clenched his fists. “How could you possibly make such an arrangement without betraying my trust?”
“You have only yourself to blame for that, Dan. You created quite a paper trail in setting up my payments. As a consequence, I’ll have to declare that income on my taxes and I don’t want to list it under murder for hire. From here on out, you can consider me a consultant.”
“Are you going through with the hit?”
“Do you want me to?”
Dan didn’t have to think long. “I can’t turn back now. Rosie knows too much. There’s no prenup. Even if I managed to stay out of jail, she’d take me for every cent I have.”
“Fair enough. You hired me to throw a woman off the train. Is this the woman you want me to dispose of?”
“Yes!” Dan said emphatically.
“I can do that easily enough. Dealing with the aftermath is another matter entirely. I’ve thought of a way we can avoid a lot of awkward questions. With a wig and a fur coat my female assistant can take your traveling companion’s place and get off the train with you. You can put her on a bus and send her out of town. I suggest you tell your friends she went to the West Coast to visit your wife’s identical twin sister.”
“I didn’t know Rosie had a sister.”
“Let’s say she does. You can call her Violet in case anybody asks.”
The hitman’s helpers removed Rosie’s coat. She didn’t resist.
“Why’s she so quiet?” Dan asked.
“I think she’s in a catatonic state of shock,” the female hit person responded. “That’s good. We won’t need to gag her. One more thing. Let’s strap on the backpack full of rocks we brought. We don’t want her body popping up somewhere downriver. Any last words?”
Dan shook his head. He couldn’t follow what exactly was happening in the semidarkness.
The train rolled to a stop.
The principal hitman had a final piece of advice. “Neatness counts. Throw her out wide so she doesn’t hit the trestle on the way down.”
The deed was done.
The scenic tour continued for two more dreary days. Dan wanted to cut it short, but his mink-coated accomplice insisted they stay the course for appearances’ sake.
Dan went directly from the bus station to the office of his investment advisor to check on the substantial assets which were now his and his alone. He had a smug expression on his face as he entered the express elevator to ascend to the twenty-third floor. This was someplace Rosie would never have gone in a million years.
“Hi, Dan. I’m surprised to see you here.”
“I thought Rosie already took care of all the financial details for your planned relocation. I understand you’ll be house hunting and looking for investment properties.”
“You went to my house to see her?”
“No, she came here.”
“A couple of days ago.”
Dan didn’t want to give anything away, but he had to ask. “How do you know it was her?”
“She voluntarily showed me a photo ID. It wasn’t really necessary since I’ve talked to her many times on the phone. Her voice was a little different in person, though, because she’s getting over a head cold. By the way, she told me that recent big investment you made didn’t turn out quite the way you expected. Maybe you can get a tax write-off.”
“Never mind that. What arrangements did my so-called better half make?”
“She expedited the change in management of your stock portfolio to a West Coast firm and she requested a wire transfer of the bulk of the cash in your joint checking account. I hope you two will be happy in your new surroundings. It should be really nice for Rosie to live close to her twin. Apparently, Violet’s quite a daredevil. An accomplished skydiver, rock climber, and all-around go-getter.”
Dan knew then he’d been outsmarted. Rosie was never on the train. Violet took her place. The only rocks in the observation car that fateful night were in his head. The backpack held a parachute.