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Shadow Call
Cain & Quartermaine 2-A
© 2022 James LaFond
MAY/20/23
Amtrak Coastal Starlight, Coach Attendant, Ben Davis
Last Thursday of October.
“By the command of God, driven out of Heaven, with his entire crew, into The Deep.”
-John Milton, 1668, Book 1 The Argument, from Paradise Lost
The dinning car was empty except for Ben. The Boss, for Ben’s job had him assigned the entire ride, overseen by three bosses in succession, was at the head of the train conferring with the lead engineer about making up time. Passengers with Portland connections to the Empire Builder would miss their eastbound connection if an hour of the delay had not been made up by the time the train to Chicago headed east out of Portland.
It was nearing dawn and he would get to view Mount Shasta, usually passed in the dark, all thanks to that clumsy tweaker back in Fresno, squashed on the tracks. The new Boss, ‘Conductor Hardass,’ boarded in Sacramento, a no bullshit conductor who would be pretty hard on the few coach passengers camping out in the viewing car come first light. This, would bring to light the fact that the old Boss, ‘Conductor PC,’ had chosen to avoid another law enforcement delay by permitting the unticketed black female passenger from Fresno to bounce the ticketed girl from Oakland out of her seat and into that public car. He had agreed to it, not wanting to be named in a race-based law suit, or to cross the conductor.
Coach Attendant Ben Davis groaned.
‘I could make a Seattle seat tag.’
That he had summoned that conspiratorial thought with his own mind made him shudder. He was a worse man than he remembered. Should he compound his lack of character with willful fraud by making a Seattle seat tag for the unticketed woman?
‘No, I’m not that guy. A coward yes, but not a fraud.’
The door from the viewing car opened and another of the oddities of this cursed train from Los Angeles to Seattle limped into the car. This strange, tall, broad-shouldered man kept his trench coat and bush hat on always and even hauled his entire baggage, that canvas rucksack from the sleeper car to the viewing car, where it must have been left. For the man did not have it strapped on as he limped on his clacking knees, in those hard clomping boots, with the aid of that eagle-headed black cane, his eyes intent on Ben.
‘The girl, I hope the girl is alright. He’s not returning to the sleeper. His ruck is upfront,’ worried Ben.
Calculating what a passenger was about to ask helped him with the answer. It was usually predictable based on the narrow spectrum of passenger choices available. This was rolling crowd control.
Ben looked up at the man, “Sir?”
‘He is too broad of shoulder to be so dammed thin in the waist and legs, his pants hang, except for catching on those knobby knees,’ worried Ben, reflexively concerned if this man was having health issues.
“Damned be I, true, Quartermaster.”
‘Did I say that out loud?’
“No offense, judge I, Quartermaster,” spoke the man through blue waxy lips, under a thin white mustache, a long straight nose, and two narrow slits of eyes that were gray with an onyx back pupil in a yellow field, that spoke of a jaundiced liver.
The words wafted down with the scent of rum.
Ben checked the sleeper registry on his phone with a glance and smiled, “How may I help you, Mister Cain?”
The man sat down across from him with a popping of knee joints and what sounded like the grinding of gears and a steely ping, like a bed spring popping, ‘Good God,’ worried Ben and recovered his composure, “Are you well, Sir?”
The voice grew grinding deep with a weariness that Ben had never heard in such depth, causing him to notice that the eye brows were white, the skin almost albino pale, and the hair, cut just above the brows and compressed by the hat, was silver, and thick, too thick for such an old man, “As well as an ancient salt has a right to be, yet good and wroth wax The Almighty.”
The man then extended his right hand across the table, sitting sideways in the seat and propping himself up with the eagle-headed cane in his left hand. Under those jaundice haw-sky eyes, worked the long, blue-nailed fingers, that might have been thick digits in the man’s prime. Those perfectly manicured fingers, worked like a narrative beat, using a scrape of a nail for a pause, the tap of a finger for a declarative, the thump of that flattened thumb for an exclamation, and the knock of two front knuckles for a question…
Cain: “A parlay?” the two large front knuckles knocked.
Ben: “Uh, o, okay.”
Cain: “The Irish wench ye Captain left upon yon deck,” scraped the nails, “in favor of the Negress stowaway?” knocked the knuckles.
Ben: “Is she okay?”
Cain: “Some sand is in you,” scraped the middle nail, “else ye would ‘ave asked on her wicked behavior.” tapped the trigger finger, that looked so for its black stain of length and sinewy grace.
Ben: Ben swallowed hard and looked into those eyes, knowing that he was being weighed and found wanting in the mind that operated behind that pale mask.
Cain: “Atime gone this old husk was home to a gentleman.” tapped the trigger finger. “My cabin,” scraped the nails “I so yield to that forlorn wench,” scraped the nails, “so might she feel like the lass once again.” Tapped the one black finger, like a rod of judgement.
Ben: “Well, that is very gracious. But...”
Cain: “It is done—Ben!” thumped the flattened thumb “Done!!” thumped that maimed thumb twice again.
Ben: “Conductor Brady, he does not approve of...”
Cain: “Stand to,” scrapped the thumb nail only “Ben!” thumped the thumb.
Ben: “Okay?”
Cain: “The stowaway has absconded,” scrapped the four finger nails, “mayhap with some middling lady’s jewels.” tapped the one black finger “I shall occupy that seat.” tapped the sinister digit, seeming almost as alive as a spider. “My bag has been deposited in stowage.” declared that trigger finger.
Ben: ‘Could I do any better than swallow hard in such situations?’
Cain: “Ben,” scraped the pinkie nail, “good Ben.” tapped the ring finger. “To some haunted few yawns curse o’ command,” scraped the thumb nail, “belike ye very abyss o’ the damned.” tapped the black trigger finger. “To others fall daunted lot o’ ye so commanded,” scraped the thumb nail, “your lot,” scraped the pinkie nail, “Ben.” tapped the sinister dark finger.
Ben: “Yes Sir, Mister Cain,” feeling giddy and entranced, and as well of light heart, not sitting slouched with the heavy heart that beat so sluggishly in his pinched chest mere minutes before. Ben was sitting up straight, at attention, drawing air into his expanding chest.
Cain: “See,” scraped the ring finger nail, “easier than to press into duty that watery willow within.” tapped the middle finger.
Ben: Ben smiled, “Yes. I’m not management material, I know.”
Cain: “Alas,” scrapped the middle finger nail, “Ben,” scrapped them all, “you possess a heart,” scraped the middle finger nail, “a soul,” scraped the ring finger, “and weak as it be,” scraped the pinkie finger, “it did reach succorous for yon lass who would be,” tapped the black finger. “Cursed I,” scraped the thumbnail, “lot-weighted you,” scraped the pinkie, “we alas have a place,” scraped fingers all, “a berth in the ranks of men…”
The fingers walked across the table top in slow spidery empathy, all but the rudder-like thumb, coming to stop before Ben’s folded hands, the pinkie finger scratching the table expectantly...
Ben: “And Miss Ramona, she’s out in the cold...you can see it and we made it worse,” declared Ben, charged with positive energy, like he had when proudly applying for this Amtrak job.
Cain: “Lot of the commanded,” scraped all four fingers, “weight upon the crew to oft act the cruel hand,” tapped the one black finger with ominous emphasis. “Duty calls!” thumped the thumb, “to my yieldt cabin,” scraped the ring finger, “hasten,” scraped they all, “now,” scraped the thumb, “en hold ye head aloft among men,” tapped the middle finger. “Refer ye Captain ye-ta-me o’ parley,” thumped the black forefinger like a spike driven into a cross.
Ben: “Yes Sir, Mister Cain,” Ben rose and extended his hand to assist the awkward fellow to his feet, excitement of purpose pulsing through his veins, a tower-worth of duty soaring in his brain.
Cain: “Thank ye,” scraped four nails, “Good Ben.” slapped the open hand on the table, with sure finality.
A gray haze of indecision had lifted from Ben Davis’ often clouded mind’s eye. He saw before him a life of bright purpose.
The tall man, a head taller than Ben at six feet, gritted his yellowish teeth as pain seemed to wrack his every motion beyond the play of table speaking hand. Ben held his hand firm, and it was a strong, strong right hand, with no meat to it, feeling almost like iron. As Mister Cain rose an ankle pinged like a spring, the two knobby knees under those canvas slacks popped, the elbow could be felt to slip and slide and then catch, with a click. But the shoulder, as round as cannonballs under that oily canvas duster, held it all together and the man ground his teeth like gristmills, “Good Ben, blessed be ye.”
Ben: “Are you, ah, where you a captain, Sir?”
The man maintained his pained dignity, “Yes, and yes, of quite the yon crew, of late, much reduced. Alas, this rattle o’ way, hope be hoped, shall take this ole hulk upon its final foray.”
“Good luck to you, Captain. I mean it,” Ben said as he shook his hand. “After you, Sir,” and as Cain nodded “Yes,” he rotated on his waist 180 degrees with what sounded like a wiry whirl, his hips taking some time to follow with a grind, one ankle making a ping and a knee, a painful slow pop.
Ben walked slowly behind the odd man as he limped cane in hand before him.
‘He must be in utter agony yet he hobbles on. What a man!’
Ben followed the old man, who stopped over the sleeping girl and made the sign of the cross and tipped his black hat, tipped it ever so slightly, then continued to the coaches.
Ben bent over the girl, who was snoring a tiny winsome snore and noticed with a flash of anger that her nose had been broken once long ago, that she had once been prettier than cute. Also, he noticed that she was wrapped in a gray canvas cloak, a cloak that was fastened around her shoulders with a Celtic cross pin broach.
“Miss, Miss Ramona,” he shook her slightly and she stirred. On seeing him, fear touched her eyes and he wanted to cry, her eyes being watery little mirrors of indictment upon his bad character.
“No,” she whined, in dainty dread, a kicked puppy of a person squirming at the back steps of the world.
“Miss, Mister Cain, the tall, older gentleman, he has asked that you have his sleeper. He has gone forward to coach. I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.’
“Really?” she wondered, “I thought he was a dream? Where will his friend stay?”
“Oh, Mister Cain is traveling alone. Let’s get you down to your sleeper in time for you to place your breakfast order.”
“Breakfast?” she mused, sitting up, as if wondering to herself when she ate last. She then became distracted by the strange canvas cloak, then smiled, hugged herself and stood and said in a lost kind of voice, “Okay, thanks, Davis. Your boss is a real jerk, you know?”
He grinned in silent agreement, and showed her the way, wrapped in her odd gray cloak, clutching her and her scraped-up pink purse in two untrusting hands, her cute but crooked bob of hair confined in her green A’s hat.
Ben walked the coaches at 7:00 AM, lights on, half the passengers still dozing, some of the seats empty, the viewing car filling to about 20%. The older, talkative woman who had befriended and become the advocate of the unticketed passenger, was now yammering on and on to the tall pallid man, who never seemed to remove his hat or trench coat. The man nodded languidly in agreement to the many uninteresting and petty things she said, as if she were happy that the unticketed passenger was gone.
‘Where did she go?’
‘The woman must have drifted away in Sacramento while taking a smoke break. Her standing there on the platform smoking and scrolling on her phone is my last memory of her.’
‘But she did not have her luggage, that hideous fake leopard skin carry-on,’ recalled Ben within, prompting his generally timid inner inquirer to a flaming quest for an answer.
Ben made his way down the stairs, and as he turned to face the restrooms on car 511, he looked right, below where he kept his clipboard and seat slips on the shelf above the luggage rack. There, behind an over-sized black bag and a light blue carry-on, that garish parcel, had been left, half hidden, by an entitled character who Ben Davis would wager did not part lightly with her things.
Postscript
The parcel was off loaded at Klamath Falls and inspected jointly by Station Security and local law enforcement. No identifying documents, no personal effects, explosives and no drugs were found. The parcel was stuffed with cash, being circulated $20 bills banded in $10,000 bricks. The FBI was notified.
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