An excerpt of Dead Man’s Tunnel, the third in the Hook Runyon historical mystery series by Sheldon Russell (available June 19, 2012).
Near the end of World War II, railroad bull Hook Runyon and his dog, Mixer, are sent to the West Salvage Yard in the high desert of Arizona. Not far away is the Johnson Canyon Tunnel. Though remote and ordinary as tunnels go, it is the gateway to the steepest railroad grade in North America and a potential bottleneck for the delivery of war supplies. So vital is this tunnel to the war effort that a twenty-four-hour military guard has been assigned for the duration. Hook’s orders are to catch copper thieves and to stay out of sight and out of trouble. But things go awry when Hook receives a call that one of the guards has been killed mid-tunnel by an oncoming train. Lieutenant Allison Capron from the Army Transportation Department is called in to help with the investigation. At first, suicide by train is suspected, but the evidence soon suggests homicide resulting from a love triangle. Unable to fit his own findings into either of these theories, Hook suspects something more sinister.
He touched his eyelids to make certain they were open. Blackness spilled into his lungs and rose into the cavities of his body. He gasped and reached out for the boundaries, but only emptiness reached back. A draft swept over him from somewhere, and he shivered.
Such cold had been with him always, and he struggled to remember where. His name came first: Joseph. It came clear and true and in his own voice. His breath hung in the morning like frozen puffs of smoke, and his sister, sucking on icy fingers, whined and wiped her nose on her sleeve. And he heard his father cutting wood down by the boat dock. Chips flew up from his ax and spun out onto the ice. The smell of pine filled the air.
But that was then. He was not that boy now but Sergeant Joseph Erikson, U.S. Army, assigned to guard the Johnson Canyon rail tunnel in Arizona. Even though the war had ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb, Joseph was lost now in the universe.
He held his hands in front of him and stared into the blackness. For an instant he saw them, it seemed so, but then they were gone. Looking up, he searched for the stars, those points of light that placed him in the cosmos, but they, too, were gone.
He touched the wound behind his ear, and something hot settled into his stomach. He shivered again, not from the cold but from the memory that crept in from the darkness like a troll.
The sound behind him on the trestle had been someone breathing, that much he remembered, and the blow had exploded in his skull with a flash.
Had he pitched over the side of the trestle and into the abyss below? Often in the lonely hours of the guardhouse he’d thought about the falling, the certain death that awaited in the rocks, the terror, the monstrous seconds between life and death.
He smelled creosote and oil, smells of the tracks and the trestle. But where were the stars, the desert night? Suddenly his mouth went dry. Out here only one place obliterated the sky and the sounds of life. Only the tunnel could plunge a man into blackness as suffocating as death.
He’d double-checked the schedule of the westbound before making his rounds. There were three hours to spare, if she came on time. The old steamers were often late, but the diesels sometimes were even early; a man could just never be certain. But then how long had he been here? How long had he lain unconscious in the darkness?
The tension in his neck crawled up into his scalp. The railroad had chiseled the Johnson Canyon Tunnel through solid basalt, only a few hundred feet in length, but with a curve at its center. They built a trestle as wobbly as an orange crate to its entrance. Trains raced from the mountains, the trestle quivering and creaking and clouds of dirt sifting into the canyon below as the trains shot into the tunnel at breakneck speeds. They plunged down a three-degree grade, their wheels screeching and smoking against the weight. The tracks shuddered beneath them, and rail spikes shot into the air like popcorn.
The ones climbing, however, groaned up the steepest ascent in North America, at times moving no faster than a man could walk. They came with pushers at their backs, their engines hauling against the tons of rolling stock.
Section men hated the tunnel for obvious reasons, and the track foreman cussed her and the sons of bitches who built her every chance he got.
Sergeant Erikson knew the tunnel better than anyone alive. He’d walked it every day from end to end. At midpoint, all light blinked away, and the world went silent. The air fell still as death, and panic welled up in even the bravest of souls.
Even so, a man caught between the wall of the tunnel and an oncoming train had no chance. Once, a section hand, who had fallen asleep in the tunnel, awoke to a westbound making the curve. He’d lost his rib cage on a ladder rung.
Either way, Sergeant Joseph Erikson had no intentions of sticking around for a freighter plunging down the mountain like the end of the world. Dark or not, there were two ways out of a tunnel, and he figured to take one of them.
As he turned, he spilled forward into the railbedding. Pain pooled in his groin. Groping in the darkness, he found the chains threaded beneath the tracks and wrapped about his ankles.
“My God,” he said, and his voice echoed back.
He’d been trussed between the rails like a butchering hog. He took a deep breath. The railroaders were forever pulling shit. Once, they nailed the guardhouse door shut, and another time they put a porcupine in the outhouse. But this had gone too far. This time he intended to settle with the foreman.
“Hey,” he shouted, and his voice pinged away.
A tingle buzzed against his ankles, like a fly in a windowpane. He knelt and put his ear against the track. It smelled of grease and metal, and a rumble traveled in from somewhere far away.
Fear rushed through his veins, and his ears rang.
“No,” he said.
The wail of the engine drifted down from the mountain. Her rumble gathered up in the sky, and her brakes smoked against the plunging grade. And when her lights dropped over the precipice, shadows leapt up the canyon wall. The earth trembled, and the roar of engines filled the desert as the train shot into the darkness of the Johnson Canyon Tunnel.
The quarter fell out of Hook Runyon’s britches and rolled the length of the caboose, clattering against the wall. The bastards hadn’t bothered to park the caboose on level ground when they’d sided it at West’s Salvage Yard in Ash Fork, Arizona.
He searched for his arm prosthesis, finding it under his bunk.
“Goddang it, Mixer,” he said. “Leave my arm the hell alone.”
Mixer, his dog, peeked up through his brows and clopped his tail against the floor. He’d been known to steal things, given the opportunity, and had recently taken a liking to Hook’s prosthesis. Just last week Hook had found it buried in the right-of-way alongside a porkchop bone. Had he not seen the hook peeking out of the sand, it would have been gone forever.
A meager salary, a passion for rare books, and an occasional drink or two had not lent itself to buying a new prosthetic. He’d managed his own repairs on the thing over the years, though it suffered from the lack of proper maintenance.
Scrap West, the owner of the salvage yard, told him the prosthetic looked like a bent crankshaft, and why didn’t he just throw it in the shredder along with the rest of the junk? When Hook suggested that he might just throw him in with it, Scrap grinned and walked away.
Hook strapped on the arm before lighting a cigarette. He put on coffee and sat down at the table to watch the sunrise over the mountain of squashed cars. Beams of sunlight skittered about in the broken windshields and off a thousand shattered mirrors. By midmorning, the yard would swelter under the sun. By noon, heat would quiver up from the piles of junk. And by day’s end, gasoline fumes would hang over the yard in a blue pall.
Hook poured his coffee and sipped at the lip of his cup. He set it aside to cool. Opening his latest acquisition, a mint copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, he thumbed through the pages. He liked Steinbeck’s stuff, the dialogue was like listening to secrets through an open window. Someday Steinbeck’s writings would go for a fortune. But then what true collector sold his books? He’d rather sell his soul, or his children’s souls. In any event, finding such a book in such condition had been lucky, given his exile in the desert.
Scrap West had complained to the railroad about thieves stealing copper off loaded cars. So Eddie Preston, the divisional supervisor, being an intemperate sort, and still hot over a little incident Hook had been involved in back in Amarillo, had taken the opportunity to even things up by putting him on the salvage detail.
The night of the Amarillo incident, Hook had found the door seal broken on a sided car. Concerned that she’d be emptied out by morning, he’d asked the switchman to side her closer in to the yard office. In the process, the switchman stuck his thumb in the coupler and pulled back a stub. He commenced screaming and cussing, his stump spewing blood the whole time.
Hook rushed in to help stop the bleeding. But when the sided car rumbled by, he realized he’d failed to set the brakes. The car rolled out onto the main line, gathering up speed as she went. She passed the yard office and then the depot, and by the time she hit the stockyard switch, she sped along at twenty miles an hour. Hook watched in disbelief as she teetered and then heaved over onto her side like a shot elephant.
Half her contents, army surplus items, mostly cots, boots, and mess hall equipment, spilled across the tracks, shutting down the main line. About the time they’d loaded the switchman into an ambulance, a thunderstorm blew in from the southwest and soaked the spilled freight.
St. John’s Orphanage offered to bring out their truck and load up the supplies if they could have them, so Hook had agreed, finding it prudent to not close the main line.
In the end, no one ever located the switchman’s thumb, and Eddie Preston had been less than understanding about the whole situation. In short, that’s why Hook now stood guard over a mile-long line of scrap cars in Arizona.
Having seniority over every other cinder dick on the force, Hook had threatened to file a complaint with the big boys. But Eddie suggested that an investigation might turn up more than Hook could explain and that if he was smart, which he doubted, he’d keep his mouth shut.
The result had been three of the longest months in Hook’s life. In all that time he’d nabbed only a couple boys stealing spike kegs and a drunk sleeping under one of the cars.
Pusher engines, old steamers for the most part, idled day and night on the siding across from his caboose. Used for boosting hotshots up the grade, they sometimes doubled as switch engines for moving cars in and out of the salvage yard. The chug and thump of their engines never ceased, and Hook had not had a good night’s sleep since his arrival.
Hook sought out the engineers for news, brief encounters with civilization, inasmuch as engineers could be considered civil. Beyond that, he passed his days alone or in the company of Scrap West, which came mostly to the same thing.
Even Mixer, who loved a good fight more than life itself, had succumbed to the isolation, resorting to extended naps, sometimes spiraling into deep unconsciousness. Several times Hook had checked his breathing to make certain he hadn’t died.
Hook poured himself another cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. As soon as the sun was fully up, he’d make his rounds. He’d noticed footprints in the sand down by the switch and again where a load of copper had been sided.
As he sat back down at the table, the engine on Scrap’s twenty-five-ton crane roared into life. The noise rode down the tracks and set up miniature tidal waves in Hook’s coffee.
Scrap had purchased the crane from the army and took pride in what he considered to be the bargain of the century. He maintained that the crane had increased his output by 25 percent and could not have been purchased anywhere else at twice the price.
Scrap never passed up a chance to make a dime, even keeping chickens in the back of the salvage yard. He claimed eggs big as basketballs and that he’d made enough from selling them to pay his monthly water bill.
Mixer, who hated the crane even more than Hook did, rolled onto his back and groaned. Once started, the roar of the engine stopped only for lunch and then again at quitting time. Now and again, a car body would plummet from the crane and crash onto the growing heap of metal.
When the crane suddenly stopped, Mixer glanced up at Hook. Within moments, a knock rattled the caboose door. Hook tucked his shirt in and opened it to find Scrap West standing with his arms folded over his chest. Scrap had been named Reginald by his mother, but hardly anybody in the world knew it. Hook knew it only because Scrap had gotten drunk one night and spilled the secret.
“Eddie Preston’s on my phone,” Scrap said.
“What does he want?” Hook asked.
Scrap pinched up his face, which looked a good deal like one of his wrecked cars. His nose spread out on the end like a spade and was the exact color of a radish. A scar ran through his eyebrow where a leaf spring had hit him, and his thumbnails were permanently blue from having been squashed over the years. His eyes were hard as ball bearings. He had a missing front tooth, which he covered with his hand when he grinned. Scrap claimed he’d been born with a full set of teeth, except for that particular one, and it had refused to grow even after fifty years of trying.
Scrap looked for the world like the bums Hook had run in his whole career, except beneath that beat-up mug was a brain that chugged away like a perpetual motion machine. It concocted one scheme after another in an attempt to screw the world out of yet one more dollar. Most of his schemes failed, but some didn’t. Either way, it didn’t matter because Scrap had already moved on to the next one.
“I ain’t no goddang messenger for Division,” Scrap said. “For all I know there’s a call coming in on copper prices this very minute. She goes up a penny, and I lose a day’s wages. On top of that, my crane’s down there drinking diesel like a drunk sailor, and I’m up here talking to you.”
“Hell, Scrap, you’re getting free security, aren’t you, not to mention all that track you pilfered off the right-of-way. I figure you owe the railroad a minute of your time.”
Scrap worked the slug out of his pipe without looking up. He blew through the stem and then fished through his pockets for his tobacco.
“I did the railroad a favor moving that rail,” he said, torching up his pipe. “I went in the hole on that one, I tell you. Anyway, it would have cost the railroad plenty to bring in equipment all the way from Flagstaff just to haul away that old track.”
Blue smoke enveloped Scrap’s head. “And you can just tell Eddie Preston these bastards are still walking off with my copper and in broad daylight, too. Maybe he should send a yard dog out here that does something other than read books and take naps.”
“Maybe you could hire some extra hands, Scrap. I never knew a man any tighter in my life.”
Scrap poked his finger into the bowl of his pipe before firing it up again.
“Just ’cause I wasn’t raised up rotten like some I know, and just ’cause I eked out a living on what others threw away, doesn’t make me tight. Makes me economical.”
“Makes you tight,” Hook said. “You probably got money stashed all over this junkyard.”
“Maybe you ought try saving a dime yourself once in a while,” he said, “instead of squandering it on old books and raw whiskey.”
“One day the government’s coming after their taxes, Scrap. What you going to do then?”
“What’s the government got to find but my good word?”
“Not paying taxes is illegal. And what about those switch brackets down by the south entrance? Where did those come from, I wonder?”
“You just quit nosing around my stuff and spend a little more time guarding my cars.”
Hook slipped on his shoes and lit a cigarette. “Come on, Mixer,” he said. “We better lock up, or the silver will be missing when we get back.”
Hook pushed the office door shut just as Scrap’s crane fired up again. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
“How’s it hanging, Eddie?” he said.
“Runyon, I been sitting on this phone for half an hour. You think all I have to do is to wait on you?”
“Sorry, Eddie, but my secretary couldn’t make it in today.”
“Cut the wisecracks, Runyon. There’s been a death out at the Johnson Canyon Tunnel.”
A chill ran through Hook. He hated that damn tunnel.
“You know, when someone stops breathing, forever.”
“Yeah, I know what death is, Eddie. It’s working security in a junkyard.”
“I want you to go check it out.”
Hook lit a cigarette and watched the crane lift a wrecked Cadillac into the sky.
“And leave Scrap’s copper unprotected? Jesus, Eddie, do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Believe me, Runyon, I’d send someone else if I could, but that line has to be kept open. If that tunnel shuts down, the whole system goes with it.”
“What do they think happened?”
“Accident, one of the military guards that’s been stationed out there.”
“Accident?” Hook flipped his ashes into the wastebasket and looked out the window, which was gray with smoke and dust. “How do they know?”
“A man don’t stand in the middle of the tunnel in the middle of the night with a hotshot charging downgrade on purpose.”
“Jesus,” Hook said.
“The engineer called it in. Took him half a mile to get shut down,” Eddie said. “He near fainted when he saw the guard’s boot stuck on the catwalk.”
“Alright, Eddie. I’ll take the popcar out.”
The popcar, sometimes called the popper, was a small gasoline-powered trolley used mostly for track inspections. It could be an uncomfortable ride in the desert but was Hook’s only transportation at the moment.
“I released the engineer on to the next stop. He’ll catch a hotshot back. You can talk to him then.”
“Damn it, Eddie, I should take a look at things before the engine’s released.”
“There’s still another army guard assigned to duty out there. He might have some idea what’s going on.”
“I’ll check it out, Eddie.”
“This thing has to be wrapped up fast, Runyon. That line can’t be tied up. It ain’t the first tunnel accident out there, you know. They killed off half of Arizona building that damn thing.”
“What’s the rush, Eddie? The war’s over, hadn’t you heard? Japan has been bombed into oblivion.”
“I want this thing resolved, see. On top of everything else, that line is being upgraded, and there’s equipment and people. We can’t shut the railroad down while you play detective.”
“I am a detective, Eddie.”
“And there’s that other little problem, too,” Eddie said.
Hook’s pulse ticked up. Eddie had been looking to nail him for years.
“They give me a promotion over your head, Eddie?”
“In your dreams, Runyon. You might just recall dumping a boxcar back in Amarillo.”
Hook lit another cigarette and watched Mixer dig through Scrap’s trash.
“That switchman cut off his thumb, Eddie. What the hell was I supposed to do, let him bleed to death?”
“And deprive the railroad of paying his medical pension for the next thirty years?” Eddie said. “I should hope not.”
“I’m missing an arm, Eddie. No one pays me a pension.”
“That’s not your biggest problem, Runyon. For example, there’s that little donation of Santa Fe property you made to the St. John’s Orphanage.”
“They had a truck and volunteered to clean up the wreckage if they could have the goods. I had to get that line open, didn’t I?”
“Oh, St. John’s was real glad to get the army cots,” he said. “And the other things, too.”
Mixer found Scrap’s old lunch sack in the trash and proceeded to tear it open.
“What other things?” Hook asked.
“That box of army condoms the kids opened back at the orphanage. They thought they were goddang balloons. The priest said it looked like New Year’s Eve.
“So the diocese calls Chicago, and Chicago calls me. Turns out everyone is unhappy.”
“Jesus,” Hook said.
“You’ve bagged your limit of Brownies for the year, Runyon. I don’t know if I can head this thing off. Maybe you ought to learn the salvage business just in case you have a career change.”
“I’d like to visit, Eddie, but there’s a corpse waiting.”
“Open and shut like they say,” Eddie said.
“Yeah,” Hook said. “Like they say.”
Before leaving Scrap’s office, Hook called the operator at Ash Fork to check the board. The line was clear until two, which would give him ample time to get out to Johnson Canyon Tunnel. Maybe it wouldn’t take that long to wrap things up.
Mixer, who had a gob of meringue stuck to his nose, waited for him at the door.
“Alright, alright,” Hook said, ruffling his head. “But you’ll have to stay with the popcar.”
Mixer fell in at his heels as they made their way through the yard. West’s Salvage sat on the outskirts of town right next to the main line. The only way a salvage business could exist without the muscle of the railroad was if it had access to river barges, and Ash Fork was a hell of a long ways from the nearest barge.
A fence encircled the yard proper but with little effect. A side gate leading to the tracks was left open a good deal of the time. The office sat within a few yards of the main gate. In a way, it reminded Hook of the prisoner of war camps that had been built in America’s interior for retaining German soldiers.
A mile-long siding ran parallel to the yard and was used for making up smelter runs. A series of shorter sidings switched off at various points for maneuvering empties and accommodating pusher engines.
The yard itself covered as much as fifteen to twenty acres of desert scrubland. Piles of salvage in stages of disassembly covered nearly all of it. Hook’s caboose had been parked in such a fashion as to expose him to the comings and goings of both the yard and the main line. The noise never ceased, and the smell of torches, gasoline, and oil permeated everything, including his clothes.
Hook stopped at the crane and signaled for Scrap to idle her down. Scrap leaned out of the cab and put his hand to his ear.
“Got an emergency,” Hook hollered over the engine. “Be back before dark.”
“Accident. Guard out at the tunnel.”
Scrap knocked out his pipe. “Been figuring it would happen sooner or later,” he said.
“Keep an eye on my caboose,” Hook said.
“Oh, sure, sure,” he said, waving Hook off.
Hook cranked up the popcar before rolling her out onto the main line. She snuffed and coughed like an old man. The popcar was worn-out and slow, and his ears would ring like church bells by the time he got back. He’d requested a company truck, but Eddie had not been able to locate one. Scrap kept an old army jeep in the yard, but he’d sold the transmission out of it last time Hook had checked.
A one-lane road paralleled the tracks for about three miles out before curving off to skirt the roughest terrain. Even though it took a little longer by road, at least there weren’t trains to worry about. No matter how many times he checked the board, uncertainty lingered. He’d worked the railroad long enough to know that people made mistakes, and meeting an oncoming train on a popcar qualified as one hell of a mistake.
Mixer jumped onto the seat. Hook throttled up and rolled off down the tracks. He dried the palm of his hand on his knee against the prospects of what awaited. The human body did not fare well against a train. The first time he’d investigated such an accident he hadn’t slept for days. When he finally did, the nightmares left him shaken and sad.
Since then there had been many such investigations, but all were disturbing in their way. At least he’d learned how to keep his meal down through the process, though the nightmares still visited from time to time. Why anyone would take a chance against a train escaped him. The brutality of such a death touched everyone involved, but especially engineers. He knew hardly a single one who had not been traumatized by a fatality.
The wind blew clean and crisp as the popcar climbed the grade. She slowed to walking speed up the ascent and clattered along like an old roller skate. Mixer, asleep at the first sound of the motor, lay sprawled out on the seat next to him.
A few miles out, they passed a survey crew that had been contracted by the railroad. Hook had seen them at work for a couple of weeks now. While he hadn’t been informed, a line upgrade had obviously begun in earnest.
Mixer came alive when he saw the men, and he leaned out over the popcar, barking and growling as they chugged by. One of the men shot Mixer the finger, which only increased his frenzy. When Hook scolded him, Mixer dropped back down on the seat to finish his nap.
Hook lit a cigarette and propped his foot up. The guards had been placed at the tunnel at the onset of the war with Germany.
Sabotage had been the main concern, since the closing of the tunnel would have shut down the entire northern corridor. But the scenario had always struck Hook as unlikely, even at the height of the war. But now with the bombing of Japan, it surely made no sense. But then as far as he could tell, making sense had never been a prerequisite for decisions in the army.
The tunnel, short by most standards, had been cut through solid rock at great expense in lives and money. A siding had been built on the approach to the trestle. As a train crossed over the canyon, the mountain rose up into a rock face ahead, and within moments the engineer was faced with the dangerous midtunnel curve. Add in the steepest grade in North America, and trouble of one sort or another rode through that tunnel nearly every day.
A guardhouse had been built high up on the grade near the tunnel entrance so as to oversee the canyon and trestle. On occasion, Hook would spot a guard walking the line or sitting and smoking on the guardhouse porch. One time, he sided the popcar and climbed the hill to introduce himself, but the guard had fallen asleep in his chair. Hook decided not to awaken him. Any poor bastard assigned to Johnson Canyon for the duration deserved an undisturbed nap.
As Hook reached the top of the grade, he pinched off his cigarette and dropped it onto the floor. For a brief moment, the trestle would disappear from sight below a small rise, and nothing but blue sky and open space could be seen ahead. But once over, the popcar would plunge down like a roller coaster.
The popcar groaned as she climbed the rise. Only the sheer wall of the canyon and the singular black hole of the tunnel could be seen. In that brief moment, it was as if the popcar had flown into the yawning abyss of Johnson Canyon. He’d made the trip many times now, but the sensation never diminished.
The popcar clattered and clanged as Hook brought her into the siding just short of the trestle. The siding had been built to accommodate maintenance equipment and the occasional breakdown.
Hook shut off the engine, and his ears rang in the morning stillness. The sun cut hot through the thin sky as it only could in the high desert. Mixer bailed off and commenced a search of the rocks that had slid down the canyon wall.
“Don’t you run away,” Hook said, checking his flashlight.
Mixer stopped and looked at him for a moment before scrambling off. Mixer loved finding something obscene and smelly to retrieve for Hook’s approval. It didn’t matter what, whether alive or dead, or how long it may have been ripening in the sun. He preferred skunks to nearly all other prey.
Hook walked to the mouth of the tunnel and looked into the darkness. He took a moment to gather up his courage. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he checked his watch.
At some point he’d talk to the other guard, but he wanted a look at the scene first. Clicking on his light, he stepped into the darkness. The air bled cool from out of the tunnel, and his footsteps crunched in the gravel.
Hook panned the area as he made his way down the tracks and into the heart of the mountain. Wooden beams, so large as to leave little room between track and wall, supported the enormous weight of the overburden.
Nearly to the curve, he spotted the first signs of carnage, body fluids and flesh atomized by the collision. Experience had taught him that the point of impact, that moment when the speeding train and the body collided, often left only the smallest evidence behind. The actual remains might well have been dragged down line for miles.
Hook made a mental note of the location before kneeling to study the tracks. The rail had been gouged and scratched, and something shiny caught his eye. He took out his knife and dug it from the gravel, a metal ring of some sort, squashed and distorted by the weight of the engine.
He held it under his light. It might have been a washer or any number of things, since track crews sometimes sought the tunnel out to escape the heat during lunchtime and left behind all manner of trash.
Hook dropped the metal into his pocket and worked his way farther into the tunnel. A few yards more, and he found an army boot tossed against the wall. The toe of the boot had been severed, and part of a blood-splattered sock remained inside it.
Just to the right of the boot, he spotted a military dog tag and could just make out a “joseph erikson” and a serial number on it. Sitting back on his haunches, he considered the horror of what those last few seconds must have been like.
He rose and dabbed at his face with his handkerchief. The body could not be far away. Just then he saw a lump lying next to the wall.
He swallowed hard and turned his light on the torso, which had been rolled and crushed between the locomotive and the railbed. Hook cleared his throat and lit a cigarette. He listened to the silence of the tunnel. The local sheriff would have to be contacted, as well as the undertaker. The army would most likely notify the family. At least he’d be spared that.
Hook took note of the location of the body again and then looked at his watch. He had time yet before the next train came through. If he was going to shut the line down, he’d have to do it soon. There should be a phone at the guardhouse. But shut it down for what? Not that much of the body remained, and keeping the line open would lower Eddie’s blood pressure.
In the meantime, he’d talk to the guard. No two men worked together in a place as isolated as this tunnel without knowing a good deal about each other.
He turned to go when he heard footsteps coming down line.
He clicked off his flashlight, stepped back against the tunnel wall, and unholstered his P.38. No one had business being in the tunnel, especially while an investigation was under way. Flipping off the safety, he leveled his sidearm in the darkness and waited.
A light in the tunnel swept the area, stopped, and then moved forward once again. Hook pressed his back against the cool wall, and the smell of creosote hung in the dampness. He waited until the light rounded the turn before he spoke.
“I’ve a pistol aimed at your head,” he said from the darkness. “Put your flashlight on the tracks, and place both hands in front of the light so that I can see them.”
When Hook could see hands on the rail, he circled to the side.
“Now your weapon. Set it on the rail, but do it slowly.”
“I’m unarmed,” a woman’s voice said.
Hook paused. “Now, put your hands behind your neck and turn toward me.”
When she turned, he shined his light into her face. Her hair, cut short, was the color of copper, and her eyes lit green under the beam of his light. She wore an army uniform, and her hat sat squarely on her head.
“My name is Lieutenant Allison Capron,” she said, “U.S. Army Department of Transportation. May I put my hands down?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same,” she said. “Had I not a gun pointing at me.”
Hook slid the weapon into its holster.
“You can drop your hands. I’ll ask you again. What are you doing on railroad property?”
“I’m not sure it’s your business,” she said.
Hook took out a cigarette and lit it. Smoke curled in the beam of his flashlight.
“My name is Hook Runyon, and I’m the railroad bull. It is my business.”
“I’m investigating the death of Sergeant Joseph Erikson,” she said. “When one of our soldiers dies, it’s the military’s responsibility to investigate.”
“A death on railroad property is of some concern to railroad security as well,” he said.
“You don’t strike me as a railroad detective,” she said. “Perhaps you could show me identification?”
He took out his badge, showing it to her. “Don’t let the missing arm fool you.”
“It’s not the arm so much as the lack of professionalism,” she said.
“Professionalism is for those sitting behind desks,” he said. “Out here it doesn’t count for much.”
“Do you intend to let me conduct my investigation or not?” she asked.
“Look, Lieutenant, there’s a hotshot due through here any time now. My suggestion is that we leave the tunnel.”
“That would be a freighter in a damn big hurry,” he said. “One that has no intentions of stopping for anyone, including army lieutenants.”
“Really,” she said.
“Next time you decide to trespass in a railroad tunnel you might want to check the train schedule first.”
“I’m not easily intimidated, Mr. Hook. If a train were coming, you wouldn’t be in here, now would you?”
“It’s Runyon,” he said, “Hook Runyon, and I don’t kid around about train schedules.”
“And I don’t intend to leave without completing my investigation. I’m searching for Sergeant Erikson’s body,” she said.
Hook dropped his light beam onto the bundle lying against the wall.
“I think your search is over,” he said.
Lieutenant Capron walked over to the bundle and paused. Clutching her stomach, she then bent forward into the darkness.
“I wasn’t prepared,” she said, taking out her handkerchief.
“It’s not something you can prepare for.”
“How do you know it’s him?” she asked, dabbing at her mouth.
Hook took the dog tag out of his pocket and handed it to her.
“It’s a horrible way to die,” she said.
He checked his watch. “Come on,” he said, taking her by the arm. “Time is up.”
They’d no sooner stepped into the daylight when the hotshot blew her whistle at the other end of the tunnel. Within moments, she thundered by, her engine blasting heat as she charged full bore up the grade. Two old steamer pushers nipped at her heels. The ground trembled, and the smell of oil hung in the air as they roared away.
Lieutenant Capron pulled her arm from his grip and straightened her hat. She searched her handbag for a handkerchief, dropping it onto her throat. Hook could see the red flush on her face and the snap of her green eyes.
“I don’t appreciate being manhandled,” she said.
“One body a day is sufficient for me, Lieutenant,” he said. “There’s no room between a train and that tunnel wall. It’s not a place you want to be when a hotshot comes through.”
“As the railroad security agent, you should have shut this tunnel down until the investigation was complete,” she said, hooking her purse over her shoulder.
“It was complete,” he said. “Until you showed up.”
“You put our lives at risk.”
“Shutting down this line sends a ripple from one coast to the other. I’m figuring that’s why the army saw fit to place a guard out here in the first place. Course, if I’d known you were coming, I’d sure enough shut down the entire system for your convenience.
“Now, there’s not another train scheduled until nine this evening, keeping in mind, of course, that trains don’t always run on schedule. In the meantime, I’m going up there to talk to that other guard.”
Lieutenant Capron shifted her purse to her other arm.
“This is a military matter. No one talks to that soldier but me.”
“And no one touches the evidence in that tunnel but me,” he said. “That soldier died on railroad property. What’s more, he was killed by one of our trains. And as long as it’s under my jurisdiction, I don’t intend to have the evidence contaminated. Furthermore, I’ll not have some upstart lieutenant telling me how to proceed with my case.”
Lieutenant Capron’s jaw tightened, and she pushed her purse back onto her shoulder.
“You mean female lieutenant, don’t you?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” he said.
“Look, this tunnel is critical to the war effort and has been under guard for the duration of the war. There are reasons for that for which you might not be aware. If I have to, I’ll go over your head.”
Hook looked down the line. Riding that popcar after dark could freeze a man solid, and he’d left his coat back at Ash Fork.
“Never let it be said that I’m not a patriot. I’ll cut you a deal, Lieutenant. You let me talk to that guard up there, and I’ll give you access to the tunnel.”
She looked at her watch and then up at the guardhouse. “I’ll have to be there,” she said. “He’s not to be questioned without me present.”
“Fine,” he said. “That way everything will be professional, won’t it?”
Copyright © 2012 by Sheldon Russell
Dr. Sheldon Russell is the author of five novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.