Off the Rails
Rough hands threw her to the ground. The rope around her wrists bit into the soft flesh and drew blood. A boot kicked her in the abdomen and flipped her over onto her stomach, her face burying into the earth.
She came up spitting. Blood mixed with the spittle.
“You’ll stay down if you know what is good for you,” said a rough voice.
She blinked through tear-swollen eyes. Bright headlamps tear through the mid-western darkness, casting a spotlight on corn fields. Blue jeaned legs step in front and block her view.
“I said stay down,” the words were emphasized with another kick to the gut. The girl winces and crumples into a ball. She sobs and wheezes with each breath. “I told you to stay away but you would not listen. Now look at you!”
In the distance a train whistle could be heard. The whistle echoed across the fields, the wind twisting the sound into music. The whistle halted the attacks and she softly thanked God in between sob-filled gasps for air.
Then the rough hands grabbed her hair and dragged her to the rails.
- - -
I lurched up with a start. Gasping for air.
My nights are always like this. The image rolls through my mind like a slow-motion film shown in high school science class. Exploding with a fine red mist. And I am awake.
I sat up, take a few deep breaths. The fresh air in my lungs helps clear the air. Not much but at the moment it is all I have. The image fades, it does not go away. It is still urking there in the dark, waiting to spring back and hit me like a wall.
“Fuck,” I say to no one and scratch my two day beard. Without using my eyes my hands find the flask and put it to my mouth. The liquid burns my throat but immediately revitalizes my body. And the image fades into the shadows.
The faint red glow from the alarm clock produces a small swath of light and my eyes turn to the other item on my nightstand. The girls. The photo is old now, the girls are thirteen and eight in the photo but today they would be…
I have to stop and think, do some math - at this hour a struggle. They would be fifteen and ten now. I study their faces, seeing their mother in the smooth cheeks, small nose, and long brown hair. I should hate her for taking the girls away. But I don’t. I understand why.
A knock sounds at the door. “Sheriff,” I hear Sergeant Jones say.
And that is how Jenny fell into my life.
- - -
Jones never fails. She had a cup of coffee already in hand when I opened the door.
“Those’ll kill you,” she nodded at the cigarette defying gravity on my lip.
“So will guns but we still carry one.” I let the cup warm my hands before I let it warm my insides. This wasted a minute and the good sergeant stood silently before me. “Well? I know you did not drive up here and wake up simply for my company. I am good looking, but not that good looking.”
“A girl, found on the tracks.” A pause. I would say a dramatic pause but that would imply this was a unique circumstance. Jones took every opportunity to make everything dramatic. “Out north end of the county.”
“Shit, near the Whitaker farm?”
She nodded and I swore under my breath. Whitaker had a serious dislike of me and the officer after we put his oldest son up the river for beating his girlfriend a year ago. Since then he had been after my badge on every occasion afforded to him. Then Jones added, “Actually on his farm, the Union track that runs through it.”
“ID the girl yet?”
“Gatlin is up there now, should have something by the time I get you up there.” She turned and headed to the driver’s side of the Ford SUV the office uses. She opened the door, then stopped half in. “You know, if you would just get a cell phone, you would make our lives much easier.”
I ignored her comment, an oft repeated, one and climbed in beside her. I gave her a sly grin. “Turn the lights on, might as well annoy Whitaker as much as possible.”
- - -
“Jenny Mathis,” was the first thing out of Gatlin’s mouth when I walked up. “Age eighteen, senior at Lincoln High, a cheerleader. Quite a looker from the photo, boss.” Gatlin handed me a photocopy of what appeared to be a yearbook photo. Bright smile, energetic eyes, long blonde hair. She would have had no trouble getting dates from the local football stars.
Then Jones added “Not much to look at now.” She pointed to a spot lit brightly by three spotlights.
“Jesus Jones, have some respect,” I said and my eyes followed her lead.
I’d seen worse but the train did a number on her. Legs were severed, one at the knee and the other mid-thigh. Her left arm was missing just above the elbow, I assumed it was around somewhere. The head though, it had taken the brunt of the train strike. Most people would have struggled to recognize it as once being a human head. Think if Picaso made lasagna and you would not be far off.
A fine red mist.
I shook my head, mentally forced the image away.
“About four miles up the tracks, took a while to stop it. Rodriguez is talking to the conductor.” Gatlin pulled up her camera up to her face and took a barrage of photos, the flash nearly blinding as the light ripped the night apart.
“Rod said her arm is stuck in the front of the train,” Gatlin stated nonchalantly and sent another round of bright flashes my way.
“No, dammit, does Rod have anything pertinent. Any leads.”
“Ah, sorry boss. From the sound of it, nothing there,” she peeled the camera off her face long enough to give me a wink.
Gatlin was not my favorite around the office but she was a good forensic officer. She would document the crime scene and analyze it as good as any FBI agent might. If there were leads here she would find them. This however, does not lessen the fact I did not find her a pain in the ass to work with.
I stepped back and turned away from her, protecting my eyes from the blinding barrage of light from the camera flash.
The track was situated on a raised ridge of dirt, about four feet higher than the surrounding corn fields. These stretched as far as I could see in all directions and ran parallel to the track, which traveled in a generally east to west alignment. I noticed a patch of corn to the north of the site that appeared to have been trampled and walked over to that area.
Pressed into the soft dark earth were clear tire tracks, the kind made by thick tires commonly found on off road trucks. The kind favored by the local farm boys who made up half the teenage population in the area. I knelt and ran my hand along the tread impressions, getting a feel for the depth, width and size of the tires.
“We’ll get impressions made of those for comparison,” Jones had come up behind me. “Send it off to the lab in Springfield. They will narrow it down in a day or two.”
I should state it here and now that I understand that modern techniques have their importance and can often find results hidden from view, but I feel the old way of doing things often serves my purpose. Nothing changes in the world, all events can be boiled down and at their core you will find people. The methods might change, but people do not. People with emotions, desires, greed, and jealousy. In the end, all the technology gizmos will still lead you back to the people.
I simply gave her a look. “The tires are a Bridgestone, offroad series, probably one of the largest size sold locally. Should not be hard to locate around here.”
I took a few steps, counting each, as I walked from the front print to the back print. “They will be on a shortbed pickup, not one of the newer and huge king cabs. This will be a short truck. I am guessing like one the younger kids prefer.”
She did not say anything to me. I lit up another cigarette.
“Well, I guess someone needs to go wake up Whitaker.”
- - -
Before my boot hit the first wooden step the porch light was thrown on. I made it up the three steps before the front door swung open.
“Should’ve known it would be you causing a ruckus out there on my land.” No offer to shake hands. He was dressed in a red and green plaid robe and with his tousled white hair and angry scowl made him look like some enraged Scottish highlander whose wife had been rough up by another clan.
“Calm down now Henry,” I raised both hands to show I was on friendly terms. “There has been a problem.” I refuse to use the term accident, another one of my quirks that drive Jones nuts. No such thing as an accident, everything has a cause, and usually that means someone was not paying attention or being vigilant, I would say. She would roll her eyes. In fact, I turned behind me to see if she was doing just that. He eyes were looking skyward and off to the left.
“Problem?” The old bastard grunted.
“A young lady encountered a train.” This apparently did not register with him, so I added “While it was moving.”
He gave me a confused look. And Jones stepped in to clarify. “She was struck by a train, not much left of her. Up on the north end of your property. Young girl from Lincoln High, about Devlin’s age.”
“Now you just wait a moment,” he started and raised a fat, stubby finger, wagging it at Jones.
“Relax Henry,” I stepped in front of him. This old farmer comes from another generation who still thinks women should be barefoot in the kitchen. I did not want him ruffling Jones’ feathers or I would hear about it all the way back to the station. “We are just informing you of the situation, nothing more. We are on your property and there has been a death. We are simply being courteous.”
He seemed to calm a little and visibly shrink about an inch. His eyes wandered from us out to the lights, barely visible off in the gloom of the night. I thought for a moment I saw a flash of human compassion in his eyes but it cleared quickly and he turned back to us. He inhaled deeply and regained his strength. “How long before you are off my property? You and all your little people?”
[to be continued.....?]