Blood on the Tracks

An excerpt from Dark Signal, a new mystery by Tucson novelist Shannon Baker

The rescue unit flipped the lights to frantic flashing and gained speed after turning onto the highway.

I stood in the flickering of my car's light bar, alone with the hissing and growling of the idling train. A coyote let out a long yip, answered several hills away, followed by a slew of barking from a nearby ranch. The nearest ranch would be Monen's Horseshoe Lake place, about six miles north. On a still, cold night in the Sandhills, sound had a way of going walkabout for unexpected miles.

Just me, the 'yotes, and poor headless Chad out here on the prairie. It wasn't even six o'clock but it felt like midnight. The half moon had worked its way a few degrees across the sky, still high enough to shed a blue glow on the frozen land.

I set a quick pace to the front of the train and examined the nose of the engine cab. Standing on the tracks, the train rose above me like a moveable steel building. A metal skirt, a modern version of the old cow-catcher, would clear the tracks of critters, debris, and snow and keep the train moving. My eyes were level with the platform that led to the cab. The steps to the gory scene drew my gaze. The shattered engineer's window would be another ten feet above the platform. I shivered at the thought of Chad up there and continued to the far side of the train. The annoying grind of the idling train couldn't be stopped until someone from BNSF showed up. Ignorant of exact safety procedures for trains, at least I knew hand brakes would need to be tied to secure the train from moving.

I wandered back and forth like a hound, with my flashlight on the ground instead of my nose. I didn't venture more than ten yards in any direction, knowing I had to stay with the body until someone else arrived. The temperature had to have dipped at least ten below zero, and after about twenty minutes, I retreated to my car to warm up.

Not long after that, headlights turned off the highway, and I watched in my rearview mirror as they approached. I recognized the light bar and figured it for the state patrol Marybeth had sent my way. I shrugged back into my coat and pulled Ted's cap low, grabbed my gloves, and met the trooper between our vehicles.

He was bundled up in a heavy coat with a ski mask hiding his face. "Trey Ridnoir," he said by way of introduction.

"Kate Fox."

"Oh yeah. Kate Fox." His breath puffed from the mask. "Sorry. I'd forgotten the election."

I'd no doubt there'd been some insider gossip within the western Nebraska law enforcement community about me and Ted running against each other. It wasn't so much about me beating an incumbent as about the two-timed wife ousting her cheating husband. It must have given idle tongues lots of wagging opportunity.

I sounded breathless, not really knowing how to begin. "Hodgekiss rescue took one crew member, Bobby Jenkins, to Broken Butte. Minor injuries if any. Looks like maybe some cuts on his face and neck from broken glass. I took an initial statement. He's shaken up, of course, but I don't think he knows what happened."

Trey nodded. "And the other crew member?"

I swallowed hard and pointed at the idling engine. "In the cab. The windshield exploded at the overpass. I'd guess he was killed on impact."

Trey strode toward the engine, and I followed, stopping beside the tracks and watching as he pulled himself by the grab bars and hopped up the stairs. He disappeared into the door. The light from his flashlight swung around, through the open window and down, where it stopped for several moments.

His descent was much slower, and he lowered himself to the ground next to me. "Sorry you had to be first on the scene. The train cab is pretty messy." Sounded like he wanted to add, "little lady," onto the end of that.

"I searched the ground for clues to the accident but didn't spot anything out of the ordinary. I hadn't expected to, though. According to Bobby, everything had been normal until they reached County Road 67."

"Good work, Kate." More than a smidge patronizing, but he was probably tying to be nice to a rookie.

Since he looked more bandit than cop, I couldn't tell whether I'd recognize his face from meetings or conferences I'd attended with Ted, but county and state didn't mingle that often. "I haven't had much experience with crime scene investigations."

He had nice lips. Probably something I wouldn't notice if I had access to a whole face. But they weren't flabby or too thin and looked like maybe they'd form into an easy grin. This line of thinking was an obvious ploy to sidetrack my brain from the grisly scene in the cab.

"Well," he exhaled and steam chugged into the sky. "The NTSB and BNSF investigators will be here soon." He paused. "NTSB. That's National Transportation and Safety Board."

Really? And here I thought it stood for Never Trust State-Patrol Boys. At least he didn't see fit to explain BNSF, a subject I knew a bit about because Dad had been a conductor since before I'd been born. I could speak knowledgeably about the union negotiations for the merger of Burlington Northern with the Santa Fe in 1986 and the benefits to the conductors of staying in their district from conversations around our kitchen table.

I'd had about enough of hanging around the chugging engine and craved some silence before having to venture back into the cab. "If you'll stay here with the body, I'm going to walk the train. See if I can spot anything unusual, especially at the overpass."

I hopscotched across the other tracks and trained Big Dick toward the west. The rumble of the train faded as I trekked away from the engines, sweeping the light back and forth, inspecting the gravel of the track bed and the knee-high yellow and brown weeds trembling in the slight breeze. Walking on my numb toes hurt while blood pushed down to warm them. By the time I'd made it the mile back to the overpass at County Road 67, everything but my face felt functional. My lips had lost all feeling, though, and frost clung to the tiny hairs under my nose.

I approached the overpass, slowing my steps to allow time to swing the flashlight more slowly and thoroughly. What would cause the windshield to explode at this site?

The farther I walked from the engines, the quieter the night grew around me. Another coyote's cry brought an answering yip from the north. Headlights peeked between the railcars as a car eased off the paved road to the railroad access. The crush of gravel and the chug of the car's engine passed me on its way to the front of the train. The vehicle crept toward my cruiser. A few more vehicles turned from the highway and drove to the engine. I guessed the rigs belonged to the road foreman and probably the trainmaster, maybe railroad officials.

I strode west, the flashlight sweeping from the train, across the prairie and back to the train. About fifty yards west of the overpass I spotted it. I walked a few more railcars down before I'd seen enough and started back the way I'd come.

Flashlights and headlamps slashed arrows of light through the darkness. I'd made it about halfway along the train before strained men's voices cut the air. They must have seen Chad, and some strong soul had sent someone to tie the hand brakes. I wished they could kill the engines. Somehow the dull roar and vibrations increased the full horror.

One figure broke away from the front engine and started my way. I assumed it was Trey. The light from his high-powered flashlight marked his path. Gravel from the track bed crunched under his footsteps.

I kept moving, each step bringing me closer to the flashlight beam traveling in my direction, sweeping back and forth, as I'd done. I heard his boots crunch and even his heavy breathing, as I'm sure he heard me.

He started talking before he reached me. "Come on back and warm up. The trainmen are here, and the officials are on the way. They'll figure out what malfunctioned on the unit or the tracks and get their reports together."

I stopped and waited for him. "The NTSB isn't here?"

He shook his head. "I'll call Ben Wolford in Broken Butte. He's the coroner for Grand County, right?"

I nodded. "It's more than an hour's drive, so we should notify him immediately."

Trey, a substantial presence at least six feet tall and bulky beneath his thick coat, shifted his weight and took a step backward, readying to return to the headend of the train. "Usually, unless we suspect foul play, he'll have us act as coroner and fill out the reports. He won't want to get out in this hellacious cold."

I didn't follow Trey. "We'd better get him out here."

He rocked between his feet, as if impatient to get me moving. "I appreciate you wanting to do everything by the book on your first major incident, but really, forcing an old man to drive sixty miles in this weather might cause a heart attack."

I held my ground. "I'll call Ben."

His shoulders dropped, and his head tilted slightly in his snuggly ski mask, as if in reluctant indulgence. "Seriously, the railroad investigators will figure out what broke and create a safety report to fix the issue and make sure it doesn't happen again."

I sniffed at what felt like a runny nose, but since snot would freeze, was probably just the sensation of my relatively warm breath. "It's not a safety issue."

"What is it then?" This time, there was no patience in his voice. It was plain irritated.


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