Book excerpt

The Insane Train

A Hook Runyon Mystery

Sheldon Russell

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

The Railroad Security agent Hook Runyon slipped on his arm prosthesis before sitting down in his caboose to read the Needles paper. “Boys Die in Barstow Asylum Fire,” the headlines read. He pushed the paper aside and poured a cup of coffee. There was nothing like starting a new day with coffee and a dose of human tragedy.

But he’d no sooner sat down when he heard Pap Gonzales, the Santa Fe section foreman, pull in with the motorcar. Pap was the section foreman here in Needles, California. His real name was Papan, though everyone called him Pap, including his wife and kids. They’d scheduled an early start to beat the desert heat. According to Pap, someone had been switch tampering at one of the crossings.

Hook dumped his cup and went out to meet him. Pap looked at his watch as Hook fished out a cigarette. Hook offered him one, but Pap declined. Soon they were clattering down the track. It was early and far too noisy for conversation, so they rode in silence into the desert morning.

When they arrived at the crossing, Pap coasted to a stop and shut off the motor. Hook got out and walked up and down the track. He hiked his foot up on the motorcar and then lit up another cigarette.

“I can’t see that it has been tampered with,” he said, looking up at Pap through the smoke.

“Someone’s tried to lever it over,” Pap said.

“There’s nothing left of the switch point, Pap. That’s a section-gang problem, not security. I’m tired of running out every time a car jumps track. Why don’t you fix these damn switches before someone gets killed?”

“We’ve had a war on, Hook, been fighting Germans, or maybe you don’t remember. I haven’t had men enough to keep the main line open much less patch up siding switches.”

“She’s worn thin as a razor,” Hook said. “I’d suggest you boys replace it or shut it down.”

Pap pushed back his hat. “Albuquerque’s been screaming about a washout for a week, but I’ll just tell them I got orders from the Santa Fe yard dog to shut down the line so’s he doesn’t have to be bothered.”

“That ought do it,” Hook said, climbing onto the motorcar. “Everybody knows how much pull I have around here.”

Pap cranked the engine of the motorcar and waited as she popped into life. Hooked liked riding the open car, though on a hot day in the Mojave, which was damn near every day, the wind could take off a man’s hide.

The wheels chattered and growled as the car gathered up speed. When the Needles depot came into view, Pap idled back.

“Want to go to your caboose, Hook?” he asked, over the clatter of the wheels.

“Yard office,” Hook said, pointing ahead. “Need to check in. Can you wait for me?”

Pap looked at his watch and shook his head. “Don’t be long. Main line ain’t the place to be sitting when the Chief comes through.”

The Santa Fe Chief was powered by a diesel electromotive engine. The electric giants had begun to impact the railroad. They were more efficient, more reliable, and could travel a hell of a lot more miles without maintenance. But even the advancement in equipment could not offset the reduction in manpower when thousands of men went off to war. The result was a railroad struggling to maintain its system.

Hook checked in at the yard office and found a note in his box saying Eddie Preston, his boss out of Division, wanted him to call.

He dialed the number with his prosthesis and lit a cigarette. Eddie never called unless he had a problem, and the problem for the last month had been Hook himself.

While in hot pursuit of a bum outside Flagstaff one night, Hook had abandoned the company truck. He caught the bum, and everything would have been fine, except for one small detail. He’d failed to get the tail end of the truck off the crossing. A west-bound freighter tore off the bumper and dragged it a quarter mile down line. They said it looked like the Fourth of July.

Eddie had been pretty unreasonable about the whole situation and filed Hook’s third Brownie for the year. He transferred Hook from Oklahoma to Needles, pointing out that the Mojave was just the place to keep a man prone to trouble on the straight and narrow. Hook had been awaiting the results of the Disciplinary Review Board ever since.

When Eddie came on the line, Hook doused his cigarette. “Eddie, this is Hook Runyon.”

“Where you been, Runyon? Why haven’t you called?”

“Pap’s been having problems with some switches,” he said, “and it’s hard to phone from the middle of the Mojave.”

“I got a call from Topeka,” Eddie said. “There’s a situation in Barstow.”

“What kind of situation?”

“I want you to catch the Chief in the morning. Contact a Doctor Theo Baldwin at the Baldwin Insane Asylum.”

“Insane asylum? Are you nuts, Eddie?”

“That ain’t funny, Runyon.”

“What do they want?” Hook asked.

“There’s been a fire, people killed. Their facility is damaged, so they are in need of moving a lot of people and all at once. Call me when you’ve got the details.”

It must have been the same fire he’d seen in the newspaper headline. Hook adjusted the harness for his prosthesis. The damn thing hung on him like a horse collar. He could hear Eddie breathing on the other end of the line.

“Has the disciplinary board met?” Hook asked.

“Not yet.”

“I was chasing the bastard in the middle of the night, Eddie. How could I know the damn truck hadn’t cleared the track? Anyone could have made the mistake.”

“Except it was you, Runyon, the third mistake this year.”

“But I got a commendation for busting that Nazi case in the Alva POW camp, didn’t I? That ought to count for something.”

“It does. Without it you wouldn’t even be getting a hearing. Call me when you get Barstow lined out. Topeka’s on my ass.”

Pap had gone to sleep on the motorcar, and Hook kicked the bottom of his foot.

“Take me up to the caboose, will you, Pap? I got to catch the Chief to Barstow tomorrow.”

Pap gave the crank a couple hard turns, and the motor struggled to life.

“Barstow?” he said over the top of the engine.

“Something going on at the insane asylum,” Hook said.

Pap didn’t say anything until he brought the car to a stop at the caboose.

“You’re going to the insane asylum in Barstow?” he asked.

Hook climbed off. “Just keep it to yourself, Pap. I take enough ribbing from you bastards as it is.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” Pap said. “I won’t tell a soul.”

“Come pick me up in the morning, Pap. Maybe you could take care of Mixer while I’m gone. He loves going out with the crew.”

Mixer fell into the category of mutt, an English shepherd and something or the other. The two things Mixer loved most in the world were fighting and eating, in that order.

“Damn it, Hook, you know it’s against the rules to take a dog out on the line.”

“That’s kind of the point, isn’t it, Pap? I enforce the rules, and I figure this to be a safety issue. One of your men might stir up a snake while he’s sleeping under a bridge, or you might get waylaid by banditos. That dog could save your life.”

Pap grinned, choked the engine a couple times, cranked her over, and rolled off down the track.

Mixer met Hook at the door. He wound through his legs and then went to the cabinet to beg for food. Hook had found him beat up and half-starved in the yards and brought him back to the caboose wrapped in his coat. Hook had fed him cornbread and milk and dabbed iodine on his wounds. Within a week Mixer had cleaned him out of food and never once since showed the least inclination to leave.

Though at times a nuisance, Mixer had arrived at a lonely time in Hook’s life, filling a pretty big hole. After Hook was sent to Needles, Reina had returned to Rhode Island. At first they had written letters, a commitment that had faded over time. As the months passed, the letters dwindled and the frenzy cooled, though neither had been willing to admit it.

Reina had been there for him in dangerous times in the past. They had loved and made love, and that could never be lost. But memories can fade from flames to embers and then grow cold beneath the ash. The last time they’d talked, they’d reached out to each other, never quite touching.

Hook shoved aside a pile of books in order to get the closet door open. Desperate for more room, Hook had talked his ole pal Runt Wallace into storing his book collection while he was gone.

But a man suffering from book madness had little chance of a cure. Only six months had passed, and already the caboose creaked under the weight of his new titles. With a little luck, he’d manage some book hunting in Barstow. While not the literary heart of the world, at least it would be new and different.

He dug out a change of clothes and hung them on the safety rail that ran down the center of the caboose ceiling. The old steamers had a weak power stroke on takeoff, so the engineers would back up and then throttle forward to bump her ahead. By the time the slack hit the caboose forty cars down line, a man could accelerate from zero to ten miles an hour in one second. On more than one occasion, the handrail had saved him from being propelled across the caboose like a cannonball.

A jug of Runt Wallace’s forty-year-old shine still sat in the closet. One day, given the right occasion, he’d dip in. For now, he had enough trouble to keep him busy. Eddie didn’t need much of a reason to send another Brownie his way, and finding a job for a one-arm yard dog would be tough indeed.

That night, after he’d polished his shoes, he hung his prosthesis over the chair and went to bed early to read a little of Bradbury’s Dark Carnival. When the coyotes tuned up out on the desert, Mixer growled.

“Go to sleep,” Hook said, turning out the light. “You can’t take on the whole world. Damn dog.”

Hook gathered up his pillow and listened to the coyotes. He didn’t know what awaited him at Baldwin Insane Asylum. But he did know that when Eddie called on an assignment, it would be neither good nor easy.

THE INSANE TRAIN Copyright © 2010 by Sheldon Russell.

DR. SHELDON RUSSELL is the author of five novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.