Read The Christmas Train Page 2

  close proximity of a bathroom. Tom was desperately ready for an adventure.

  He walked to the front of the train and saw the twin diesel electric engines that would be pulling the Cap. He’d read about these monsters. They were General Electric P-42s, each weighing a staggering 268,000 pounds, cranking sixteen cylinders and packing 42,000 horsepower. As his gaze lingered over these hulking machines, he imagined how wonderfully they might perform on the congested Washington Beltway. What a P-42 couldn’t outrun, it would simply run over.

  Walking back on a track siding that ran under the station, he saw an old, hunter-green railroad car that looked interesting. An Amtrak employee was nearby, so Tom asked what it was. The fellow answered, “That’s Franklin D. Roosevelt’s old train car, the Marco Polo, Train Number Seven. It’s owned by Norfolk and Southern now. They wine and dine VIPs there, right on the spot.”

  As they stood watching, a stretch limo pulled under the tunnel near the former Roosevelt train car.

  Tom said, “Are they having an early dinner on the Marco Polo? Perhaps with Churchill and Stalin?” he added with a smile.

  The man didn’t get the joke. “Nope, some big shot getting on the Cap Limited. They bring ’em in that way, then there’s a ramp underneath the station the limo can go out. We do it for privacy, like sneaking movie stars through airports.”

  “So who’s the big shot getting on my train? Probably some political type, right?”

  The fellow looked at Tom. He appeared to be a veteran railroader with probably lots of terrific stories to tell, if only Tom had the time. “Well, if I let you in on that, it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it?”

  Tom waited a bit to see who’d get out of the limo, but no one ever did. The odds of an eventual sighting were high, though, since once on the train it would be difficult for the VIP to stay concealed. Give Tom Langdon a train flying down the tracks, pen, paper, trusty binoculars, and full indemnity, and he’d bag a VIP every day of the week.

  Today the Cap’s configuration of cars, called the “consist” in train-speak, was two engines, one baggage car, three coaches, two sleeper cars, one dining car, and one dormitory transition car. The transition car was where most of the service crew was quartered. It had high and low doors that allowed the double-decker cars to have access to the single-level cars, hence the term “transition” car. Tom kept walking until he reached a sleeping-car attendant and showed him his ticket.

  “Next sleeper car down, sir. Regina will take care of you,” the fellow told him.

  Tom went to see Regina. She was standing in front of an impressively large sixteen-foot-tall double-decker train car that was called, in Amtrak parlance, a Superliner, the heaviest passenger-train car in the world. Trains, although some considered them an outmoded form of travel, held an undeniable mystery for Tom. He’d read most of the classic suspense yarns that had taken place on rolling stock, and the elements for edge-of-your-seat storytelling were all there. You had the romance of sophisticated yet unhurried travel in a confined space, with a set number of suspects from all walks of life. In what he thought were the best of such stories, passengers held their breath in the darkness, blankets pulled to their chins because they could just sense something terrible was about to happen. Soon, with the tension at its peak, there’d come a slash of light, a scream, and a dull thud as a body fell. In the wee hours of the morning, the corpse, peepers wide open and skin pale as chalk, would be discovered by an incredibly dense traveling maid who’d scream her head off for about ten minutes while a pair of brooding eyes watched from a shadowy corner. Anyone unmoved by such a scenario should check his pulse, Tom strongly felt.

  Regina possessed flawless, dark brown skin and seemed to be too young to be working on a train or anywhere else; in fact, to Tom, she looked like a high-school junior gearing up for her inaugural prom and first serious kiss. Tall and slender, she was personable and obviously enjoyed her work. She was wearing a red and white Christmas hat, the sort donned by Santa’s helpers at the mall, and she was assisting the nervous young couple Tom had seen holding hands in the waiting area. The priest had already checked in and was hauling his big duffel inside the train. After Regina had finished with the couple, Tom stepped forward and showed her his ticket.

  She looked at the name and marked it off her list.

  “Okay, Mr. Langdon, you’re on the upper level. Compartment D. Stairs are to your right and then left down the hall.”

  Tom thanked her and gingerly placed a foot on the august Capitol Limited. His experience with sleeper cars was limited solely to viewing the movie North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring the impeccably elegant Cary Grant, a nubile Eva Marie Saint, and a very sinister James Mason. Most fans of the movie remember the famous cropduster plane scene where Cary, dressed in his superbly tailored gray suit, is standing alone in the middle of vast, lonely farmland waiting for a meeting with the mysterious George Kaplan, who of course doesn’t exist. Some wily minds at the CIA had concocted Kaplan’s identity for their own nefarious purposes. Those folks at the Agency were always lying about something to make the world safe for democracy. Yet, to be fair, it was all in good fun and solely at taxpayer expense.

  Now, the movie scene that Tom remembered most was the one that featured a lot of kissing inside Eva Marie Saint’s spacious sleeper compartment. Cary and Eva went at it pretty hot and heavy even by today’s standards. Watching it as a young man, hormones afire, Tom remembered thinking impure thoughts about all women everywhere, or at least those who looked like Eva Marie Saint.

  Having seen that film, he knew that his sleeper compartment would be elegantly appointed and spacious, have room for a couple of beds, and feature a nice study area, a small foyer in which to formally receive visitors, a full bathroom with whirlpool tub, optional servant quarters, and perhaps an outdoor patio/balcony combo. There was a reason that at the end of the movie Cary and Eva had honeymooned in that very same sleeper compartment: It was bigger than any apartment Tom had ever had.

  He started to climb the stairs as instructed by Regina. With luggage the going was a little tough, the stairs turning at tight ninety-degree angles. He assumed all the extra space had been devoted to the mammoth sleeper compartments. Then he looked up and realized he faced a considerable obstacle.

  She was old, dressed in what looked to be a sleeping gown although it was not yet four o’clock, and was teetering on the top step coming down. Tom was on the second to the top step. He only had one more step to go, one narrow little riser to navigate, before he was off to fantasize about Eva Marie in his rolling penthouse.

  “Excuse me,” he said politely.

  “Coming through,” the woman announced in a thunderous baritone that actually made the rough, tough former war correspondent feel dangerously effeminate.

  “If you’ll just let me squeeze past,” he replied. But that was out of the question. She wasn’t nearly so tall as Tom, but she was, to put it delicately, considerably wider in frame.

  “Hi there, Regina,” the woman called down.

  “Hi there, Agnes Joe,” said Regina.

  Neither of them backing down, Tom and Agnes Joe engaged in an awkward tango, one foot forward, one foot back. Performed vertically on the stairs, it actually made Tom a little queasy.

  Finally he said, “Agnes Joe, I’m Tom Langdon. I’m in Compartment D. If you can just step back for a sec—”

  He never finished the sentence, because instead of stepping back, she gave him a little nudge. Actually it was a meaty forearm launched to the right side of his head, which sent him, already off-balance, stumbling back down the stairs, where he hit bottom and fell flat on his back.

  Agnes Joe followed his plummet and was polite enough to gingerly step over his prostrate carcass. Tom very seriously doubted this was how Mark Twain had begun his cross-country railroad journey. Agnes Joe walked over to Regina, who was busy helping some other people on board and luckily hadn’t seen what had happened, for which Tom was grateful.
After all, an elderly woman had just pulverized him at King of the Hill.

  “Here you go, honeypie. Thanks for taking my bags.” Agnes Joe handed Regina some cash.

  Tom picked himself up and headed over to Regina after glaring at the old woman as he passed her.

  “I’ll get your bags, Mr. Langdon, just put them over there while I get everybody checked in.”

  “Thank you. And it’s Tom,” he said, handing Regina a handful of dollars. She graced him with a cute little look. He glanced at Agnes Joe, who was slowly making her way back up the stairs.

  “So have you been working on this train long?” he asked Regina.

  “Four years.”

  “That’s a long time.”

  “Shoot, we have people been on this train twenty years.”

  Tom looked back at Agnes Joe, who was still on the same step. Her legs were moving, but she didn’t seem to be ascending. It was actually fascinating to watch, sort of like witnessing pokey lava.

  “So you know Agnes Joe?”

  “Oh, sure, she’s been riding this train for ’bout, oh, ten years, or so I hear.”

  “Ten years! She must really like the ride.”

  Regina laughed. “I think she has family she goes to see. She’s nice.”

  Tom rubbed his head where “nice” Agnes Joe had walloped him. “Is she on this sleeper car?”

  “Yep, right next to you.”

  Oh, joy, joy, he thought.

  He went back to the stairway where Agnes Joe was, inexplicably, still on the exact same step.

  “Agnes Joe, do you need some help?”

  “I’m fine, honeypie. Just give me a little time.”

  “Maybe if I get in front of you and pull?”

  Tom’s plan was to get in front of her, run like hell, and lock himself in his magnificent suite with Eva Marie while Cary Grant kept guard outside.

  “Just give me some space, sonny!”

  She finished this last retort with a heavy elbow that somehow found Tom’s left kidney. By the time the pain had ceased and he was able to straighten his torso, Agnes Joe was gone. He slowly made his way to Compartment D. Damn if he didn’t feel like a war correspondent again.

  chapter four

  As Tom stood in the doorway of Compartment D, it occurred to him that if Cary and Eva Marie had shot the kissing scene here, North by Northwest would have been rated triple X. He wasn’t sure of the exact dimensions of this deluxe accommodation, but two normal strides later he’d bumped into the opposite wall. There was no foyer, no study, no desk, no double beds that he could see, and he was reasonably certain that the balcony/patio combo, whirlpool, and optional servant quarters were myths too.

  There was a sink and a mirror and an outlet for an electric razor. The cabinet below was well stocked. He saw toilet paper, so there must be a bathroom hidden in here somewhere. There was a tiny closet in which to hang his coat, a large mirror on the far wall across from what he assumed was the bed, and what looked like an upper bunk as well. There was a chair and a fold-down table with a checkerboard engraved on it, which he could use as a desk. And the picture window was huge and gave an inviting view of the outdoors, where a few trickles of snow were starting to fall, getting him more into the Christmas spirit. The door to the compartment locked and had a heavy privacy curtain. Okay, it wasn’t bad, he decided. In truth, space-wise, it easily beat out even first class on an airplane.

  This impression lasted until he opened the door and saw his private bathroom. Actually, according to the sign posted inside, this was the bathroom and the shower. He was expected to pee and shampoo in the same space? In his overseas reporting days, he’d actually endured showers consisting solely of camel spit, and that definitely wasn’t by choice.

  His real dilemma here was one of capacity. He looked at his girth and then eyed the bathroom/shower. He edged closer and studied the situation some more. He was reasonably certain that he could wedge himself inside this chamber. Of course, once in, it would take three or four strong men with heavy machinery to free him. And no doubt Agnes Joe would be standing there waiting to take a shot at the one good kidney he had left.

  He’d read about the unfortunate woman on a transatlantic flight who’d committed the unpardonable sin of flushing the toilet in the plane lavatory while she was still sitting on it. This seemingly innocent action somehow created a mighty suction vacuum that trapped her on the toilet seat. (He’d wanted to write a note to the plane engineers inquiring why they hadn’t tested for this unfortunate possibility.) She endured the entire flight in the fully upright position until the plane landed and an elite crew armed with giant spatulas and baby oil stormed the lavatory and freed the poor hostage. If it had been Tom, he believed he would have gnawed off his legs and broken the seal himself.

  Unwilling to think about it anymore, he turned back and was about to sit down, when he saw something flash by against the wall opposite the bed. At first it didn’t register, it was so fast. But then it happened again. It was Agnes Joe. How could that be? This was a very peculiar definition of private accommodations. Then he saw the problem. The walls between compartments must open, perhaps for maintenance or reconfiguration or something, but the result was that he could see into the woman’s room. He’d bivouacked with the aforesaid dirty, spitting camels, and desert nomads whose last bathing experience had been at birth, and various other unwashed persons, with mortar fire as his alarm clock. Yet he’d never slept with an Agnes Joe, and he didn’t really want to start now.

  As he went over to the wall to push it back into place, he peered through the crevice between their rooms and found himself cornea to cornea with the woman.

  “You best not be peeping at me, sonny boy,” she said. “Besides, you don’t want to look at my old stuff, honeypie. Find yourself some girl closer to your own age.”

  Okay, Tom thought, the lady is the town eccentric, only on rails. He decided to play along.

  “Your stuff looks pretty good to me.”

  “Now, don’t make me call Regina.”

  “You don’t want to do that. Why mess up a nice twosome with a third wheel?”

  “Don’t you try to sweet-talk me — it won’t work because I’m not that sort of girl. But we could have a drink together in the lounge car after supper and get to know each other.” She actually batted her eyelashes.

  “Now that’s an offer I’d be a fool to refuse.”

  She gave him a playful smile. “I’m sorry about knocking you down the stairs, Tom. My hand must have slipped.”

  “If it had to happen, I’m glad it was you.”

  He turned and saw Regina standing there, his bags in her hand. She glanced over at the wall and shook her head. “Did that wall pop out again? I told maintenance to check it.”

  “Hi, Regina,” said Agnes Joe through the opening. She pointed to Tom. “You watch that fellow, he’s slick.”


  Tom pushed the wall back into place.

  Regina said, “Sorry about that.”

  “That’s okay. She seems pretty harmless.”

  Regina gave him a sly look. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” She brought his bags in and then sat down on the edge of the couch that apparently transformed into a bed at midnight and pulled out a notepad.

  “I’ll take your dinner reservation now. Dining car opens at five-thirty. Or if you don’t want to eat in the dining car, you can get some food from the café. It’s in the lounge car; the one past the dining car, lower level. You’ll see the staircase about halfway through on the right. Just show your ticket to Tyrone — he’s the lounge-car attendant — and tell him you didn’t eat in the dining car. It’s all free for sleeping-car passengers.”

  “I’ll eat in the dining car. How about seven?”

  She wrote this down.

  “While you’re eating, I’ll come in and get your bed made up. And we have soda and bottled water and coffee and fruit at the top of the stairs where you came up. I check it all the time, so e
verything’s fresh. Help yourself.”

  “Is there a dress code or anything in the dining car?”

  Regina looked amused. “Well, I’ve seen people wear just about anything a person can wear on this train.” Was it Tom’s imagination, or did her gaze flick in Agnes Joe’s direction? “But most people are pretty casual. Lot of families on this train, with little kids. What you’re wearing is fine.”

  “That’s what I needed to know.”

  He questioned her about the small size of his shower/bath, and she told him that larger facilities complete with changing room were available on the lower level on a first-come, first-serve basis. “Most of the physically enhanced people opt for that,” she added diplomatically.

  As she rose to leave, Tom said, “I’m a journalist. I’m writing a story about my train trip across the country.”

  She looked very interested. “Are you taking the Empire Builder to Seattle, the California Zephyr to San Fran, or the Southwest Chief to LA?”

  “Southwest Chief to LA.”

  “That’s a great train. The Chief has a cool history. And they’re wonderful people on board; you’ll have fun. Most people who work the Chief never want to leave.”

  Tom pulled out his notepad and started jotting things down. “The way you describe it, the train almost seems like a person.”