THE WHISPER OF SHADOWS
By D.V. Bennett
Jet Franklin enjoyed working the rail yard swing shift in Phoenix, provided he didn’t have to be around too many people.
Dennis Cooper would be impossible to avoid. An immense man with a voice to match, he managed the communications center and required Jet to radio in frequently, if only to make sure he was safe. Dennis was okay, though.
Stephen Little Hawk was a good guy too, because he only spoke when he had something worth saying.
Tonight, everybody was working around a hot rail. Some hogger from northern Oklahoma was fast approaching his twelve-hour limit, and he was trying to make the time any way he could.
So far, the load was on schedule to the Port of Long Beach, even though his team was operating with a short crew in the middle of processing, with two trains holding.
On top of everything else, the Environmental Management Group commandeered several people to help isolate and secure a tanker car leaking gallons of diesel fuel. The environmental threat needed to be fixed quickly, and the exec sent the word out, “Get it done.”
Everyone had a job to do, but Jet lucked out. He’d been told to get a visual confirmation of the number of cars on the trim lead, waiting to be coupled for their outbound destination. Easy work.
The only thing easier would be sitting in his recliner chair after his shift to watch the DVR of the Giants' game. He did love his recliner chair.
Jet jumped into the work and logged fifty-one cars before he spotted someone moving in the shadows a few cars ahead. He heard the unmistakable whisper of a rail car door opening very slowly.
He almost called in to have Dennis send him some backup but changed his mind. He didn’t welcome the interaction and he’d been to this party many times before. Skip-stepping over several sets of tracks, he covered the thirty or so yards quickly enough to get to the car before the door could slide all the way closed.
“Hey,” Jet’s big hand pounding the door sounded like a chorus of bass drums, “you can’t be in there. Come on, let’s go.”
The grim black snout of a .45 semi-automatic pistol protruded through the gap, and Jet raised his hands.
“Get in here,” boomed a voice from the shadows.
“Calm down,” Jet raised his hands.
“Don’t tell me to calm down. Get in here, now.”
“Okay, I’m coming up.” Jet slid the creaking door open wider, put his hands on the deck and hopped up to waist height. He slid a knee in to prop himself up in the darkness when something hit his head.
* * *
The wobble of the car as it rolled along the tracks bounced Jet into wakefulness. His disorientation left him when someone pressed their shoe against the back of his neck. He determined at least three hours must have passed since he’d been knocked unconscious, because no one would have humped this car back to its connection until the big unit was loaded and sent on its way to California.
A voice above him said, “He’s waking up.”
Jet struggled to speak with his lips pressed to the floor, “This train and this car are bound for Fort Benning, Georgia.” This was lie number one. “You’ll only have one opportunity to bail out before it makes destination.” Lie number two. “If you don’t get off at that stop, you’ll end up on a U.S. Government Army base and be arrested for trespassing on government property.” Lie number three.
Jet felt the pressure of the foot and the muzzle of the gun pressing against the back of his neck increasing as the man bent lower,
“Lie to me one more time asshole, and I’ll bury you. Got it?”
“Okay.” Jet prided himself on being a good liar when necessary. Evidently this guy was a better liar than he was.
The foot came away from Jet’s neck, “Turn over.”
“Okay,” Jet rolled onto his back.
Someone clicked on a flashlight, illuminating the front half of the car where Jet had fallen. He couldn’t make out anything or anyone behind the lamp, but he could clearly see the man standing over him.
He was broad-shouldered and thickly muscled, no more than mid-twenties at the most, dressed in an expensive Italian suit.
“I’m going to let you stand up now.” The young guy backed away a couple of steps, “Put your back against the wall and your ass on the floor.” He pointed to the forward end of the car, “If you move from there before I tell you to, you won’t move again. Understand, old man?”
“Hey, I’m only forty.”
“That’s sweet,” came a woman’s voice from the behind the flashlight, “now take your clothes off.”
Jet held a hand up to shield his eyes as he stared into the light, “Excuse me, but we don't know each other that well.”
The younger man slapped Jet on the side of the head, “Do what she tells you to or—”
The man pushed the gun against Jet’s head again, “That’s right asshole. I will.”
“I don’t think so. I’m betting you don’t want any blood to get on my clothes.”
The man backed away again. With a “What now?” kind of look on his face, he turned toward the flashlight, which moved closer, a growing darkness filling the void behind it.
Jet could see the woman clearly now.
Probably closer to Jet’s age, she looked thirty-five. She wore blue jeans and a silk blouse. One look at her and he knew she was calling the shots.
“That’s my flashlight,” Jet held out a hand, “I’d like it back.”
“When I’m finished with it.” She fingered the engraved lettering on the handle and leaned when the car lurched, “Jet, we need you to do this for us.”
She knew his name, and he realized at that moment that he wasn’t sitting on his wallet. They’d taken it from him while he slept. He felt for the folding tactical knife that he always carried, clipped to his right front pants pocket. It was gone, too.
“And you are?”
“My name isn’t important, Jet.” She walked a circle around him as she spoke, “What is important is knowing that we’re heading west to California. Isn't that correct?”
Jet considered risking another lie, but he didn’t like the odds, “Yes.”
“We need to get off this train when it stops, and without any legal entanglements. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Jet drew a knee to his chest and rested an arm on it, “I understand you want to dress sonny boy here in my work clothes so that he can hop off the train with you and pass for a line employee. I also understand you’ll probably kill me and leave my body in this car.”
“Tell you what buddy,” the man tapped Jet’s shoulder, “we could just knock you out again, take your clothes and throw your dead naked ass out the door someplace along the way.”
“Casey,” the woman touched the younger man’s arm, “let me handle this.”
“Yeah, Casey,” Jet craned his neck to see him, “let her handle this.” Casey swung the gun at Jet’s head again, but Jet had stalled long enough to recover. He grabbed the barrel, twisted it around, jerking it as hard as he could.
Casey tried to pull away, but his index finger got caught in the trigger guard. Jet kicked out and swept Casey’s legs from underneath him. He hit the floor hard, and Jet back fisted him to the nose twice and tried to follow through with a haymaker, but the woman killed the light, plunging them all into blackness again.
Jet wrested the gun from Casey's broken finger and pointed it in the dark, trying to get a sense of where the woman might be standing. He sidestepped to his right until he bumped into the side of the boxcar and waited for her to flick the light on again.
He knew his way around Mr. Browning’s model 1911, and in the darkness, he ran his fingers over the weapon. He’d made the rash play in grabbing for it but fortunately, Casey had set the safety on. Jet thumbed it off.
He couldn’t see Casey or the woman, and the noise of the moving car and the pounding of his own blood in his ears kept him from hearing where she was. Pointing the .45 with one hand, he felt along the wall until he came to the door, and the woman clicked the flashlight on for an instant and shut it off.
The light distracted him, and there wasn’t enough time to see if Casey was still stretched out on the floor. He moved at random, three steps this way, three steps that.
The light flashed again, from a different position, and this time he had the presence of mind to look for Casey. He was still where Jet dropped him, but fighting to get up on his knees, staggering with the movement of the boxcar.
“You should have cooperated with me, Jet,” the woman yelled over the noise of the train.
Jet ran a few steps to his left, hoping to align himself with Casey before he got all the way to his feet, but when the light clicked on again, he found himself in the wrong place, and a pair of arms clamped around his neck from behind, in a classic figure four hold.
He turned his head to the right, tucked his chin in to protect his throat and fired two rapid shots downward and slightly behind himself.
Casey howled as the two bullets ripped through his stomach and hip. Jet swung back blindly, feeling the gun butt connect with something solid and heard Casey's body crumple to the floor.
Jet secured the .45 in the darkness. The slide was locked open. He wondered about the fact that Casey’s pistol only had those two rounds left in it. He set the empty weapon on the floor.
“Better turn my flashlight back on now, lady,” Jet yelled. “We need to attend to Casey before he bleeds to death.”
“Everybody has their problems, Jet.” Her voice came back from the darkness. “I have my own issues to deal with, and I can’t wait around for him.”
Rain pelted heavily against the roof of the car, as Jet moved again, “I guess it sucks to be Casey, huh?”
“He knew there were risks going in, just like you did when you went to Afghanistan, Jet.”
Her voice came from a different part of the car. She was moving too. “Like I did?”
“Yes. Your flashlight is engraved. Afghanistan, that’s where you served, isn’t it?”
“Army Ranger, right?”
"Must have been a lot of risks to take there.”
“There were enough,” Jet said.
“Well, I’m a bitch, and bitches don’t like risk. I like a sure thing.” She paused as the sound of her voice was overwhelmed by the pound of rain on the roof, “I don’t have time for screw ups. How’d you get a name like Jet, anyway?”
“Been my nickname since I was a little kid. It stuck.”
He could tell now they were both circling to their respective rights, each shouting to be heard over the noise of the car and the din of the downpour.
She flicked the light on again. They were just ten feet apart when the air brakes activated, and the long train went into an emergency stop.
Jet’s back slammed against the front wall of the car, and he saw the woman hurtling toward him, with his own knife extended outward.
Her body slammed into his, and she dropped the flashlight. He tried to parry her thrust, but her hand wormed past his. When the tip of the blade stopped against his thick leather belt, he tried to grab her wrist, but she jerked free and rammed the knife home.
He felt the blade slip into the left side of his abdomen, and he slapped her hard across the face. She stumbled away as the flashlight rolled around on the floor. He lost track of her in the random flashes of light until she opened one of the car doors.
Rays of early morning sun poured into the car, framing her figure in the doorway, and she jumped out.
Jet watched her body seemingly suspended in time, but she hit the ground hard, bouncing and performing an insane tumbling routine before coming to an abrupt stop against a limestone outcropping.
* * *
Two hours later, Jet sat in the open doorway, looking out from the deck of the bright orange car. On a wide puddle of water, left in the storm’s aftermath, the still reflection of the train seemed to fill him with a sense of peace amidst the crowd of EMTs, FBI and railroad personnel.
The engineer made the sudden unscheduled stop because he’d received a flash flood warning during the deluge, which ended as suddenly as it began.
Jet found his radio in the car and called the engineer to get help for Casey, but it was too late. Casey bled out before the EMTs arrived.
The woman, whose name Jet still didn’t know, was found dead over half a mile back. She suffered a broken neck in her bid to escape justice.
While irritating, the EMTs deemed his knife wound to be superficial, and dressed and bound it for him, making him promise to visit a hospital later in the day.
The FBI took Jet’s statement twice before debriefing him. Afterward, an FBI agent told Jet how the two dead suspects attempted to rob a cash and loan shop in Phoenix the night before, leaving a security guard dead, and escaping without any cash.
The authorities gave Jet a chopper ride back to the railyard, where he’d gone missing six hours earlier. Dennis Cooper stood in the forefront of a crowd of workers who greeted him with applause, handshakes, and pats on the back.
When the reception was over, Stephen Little Hawk caught him aside, “I’ll give you a ride if you’re ready to go home now.”
Jet fist bumped him, “Sounds good.” In Little Hawk’s pickup, Jet shut his eyes, leaned back to rest his head, and dreamed of his recliner.
D. V. Bennett is the author of over 24 published short stories and is currently working on a short story collection and a couple of novels. Like most authors with a day job, he insists that writing is still the thing that keeps him up nights. He lives in southern Washington State, and enjoys spending time with his family and training in martial arts, two pursuits which have been lifelong passions.
Copyright © 2021 D. V. Bennett. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!