Heels on a Train
A Runaway Train Mystery
Consciousness came slowly. The first thing she was aware of was a cold draft on her feet. She wiggled her toes and realized they were still encased in the Salvatore Ferragamo sandals she had worn to the club…when? Could it have been last night? She concentrated hard and brought up a clear memory of an Uber ride with Claire and Allison and their arrival at the Boho Beach Club, a trio of ridiculously rich girls out for a night on the town. She conjured a sketchy image of the three of them dancing, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember leaving the club, couldn’t recall anything after the dancing.
Her throbbing head felt like it was wrapped in a giant piece of the cotton that makes it so hard to get the first pill out of a new prescription bottle. The pulsing sensation in her temples felt regular and rhythmic, and she realized it was synched with a repetitive quartet of beats coming up from the floor. She took a few more shallow breaths and registered a steady whooshing accompanying the one-two…three-four rhythm rising from below her feet. It took a few seconds, but she eventually recognized the sounds. She was on a train.
As she tried to drag herself to full wakefulness, she heard voices. At first, they sounded far away, but when she focused as hard as she could, took a slow breath, and tried to quell the unsettled, nauseous feeling in her gut, she realized someone very close to her was speaking. The words were jumbled at first. She leaned her head against the cushion of the couch she found herself sitting on, but fought the urge to sink back into unconsciousness and forced herself to concentrate hard enough to understand what was being said.
“I’m afraid my wife had a little too much to drink last night.” The deep, slightly accented voice was coming from someone so close she felt the puff of their breath against her skin. Her attempt to identify the speaker was interrupted by a second person, who pronounced their “ow” sounds as “oo”. A Canadian, she guessed.
“It looks like it may be a while before you wife is out and about, Mr. Roberts. Perhaps you would prefer breakfast served in your room?”
“No, I don’t think Mrs. Roberts will be eating anything this morning. I’ll make my way to the dining car shortly.” She heard the rustle of bills. “Thank you for your help. I’d have had quite a time trying to get her in here myself.”
British. His accent was British; subtle, but unmistakable. Another memory drifted out of the fog clouding her brain; a picture of the man who was speaking. Dark hair, piercing dark eyes, a dimpled chin. They had met at the Boho last night. She found him attractive; he had been fully aware and acted accordingly. She introduced herself as Sophie Gleason and he had immediately recognized the name of her father’s chain of steak houses. They had a laugh about the brand’s latest commercial featuring the Yankee’s new draft pick. They danced. He bought her a drink. A drink! She was jolted to another level of consciousness. He had drugged her drink!
“No problem at all, Sir, enjoy the rest of your trip.” She could hear the Canadian moving away from her as he spoke, then a click as the door closed.
She was almost fully conscious now. Tiny prickles of fear were penetrating the fog. She fought the urge to open her eyes. She kept her breathing steady and willed her muscles to remain slack. He had drugged her. Had he physically assaulted her? She had no memory of it, but wasn’t that what the drug was supposed to do…erase the memory? She was still wearing the strappy gold sandals, and she didn’t feel…violated, no pain anywhere she could identify. It didn’t feel safe to open her eyes to check for bruises or run her hands along her skin to feel for abrasions. She felt a rising fury, this brute had drugged and kidnapped her, but knew she had to remain calm.
The man with the dimpled chin pulled away from her and stood up. She slumped against the seat back, kept her eyes closed, and slowed her breathing. She tried to remember the words her yoga instructor used when she led the class in a guided calming meditation.
“Center your breath. Relax your toes, your ankles, your knees…” She mentally coached herself. She had to make him believe she was still fully under the influence of the drug.
She heard the unmistakable tones of a cell phone dialing. She focused on her breathing. Slow. Shallow. Regular.
“Grimes?” The English accent was more pronounced now, like she’d woken up in the middle of “Goldfinger”. “We’re on the 7:15. She’s still out. We won’t get to the station until 15:45. I’m headed down to the dining car to get some breakfast.” There was a pause while the person on the other end of the call spoke, then her captor replied, sounding mildly annoyed. “I’ll lock the door, for God’s sake. She’s unconscious, she isn’t going anywhere.” The response was loud enough for her to hear.
“You’re an idiot, Granby.” The angry voice coming from the phone filled the small room. “She could come to any time now. Her father agreed to have five million at the station when the train arrives. If you can’t wait until after we’ve collected the money to eat your breakfast, at least tie her up so she can’t get away.”
She heard the call disconnect, then a thud as the phone landed on what sounded like a table, somewhere near her left thigh. She had been drugged so they could kidnap her and demand a ransom!
She stayed completely still, kept her breathing slow and shallow. She felt Granby move closer to her. He leaned over. She felt his breath on her cheek. She heard a click that she recognized as the safety being taken off a revolver, then felt the cold steel of the barrel against her neck.
“And what does that idiot Grimes think I’m going to tie you up with, eh Sophie darling? My shoelaces? It’s barely half past seven, the Rohypnol won’t wear off until at least nine. But, just in case you can hear me through that drug-induced stupor, know this my pretty little rich girl. You may be too valuable to kill, but if you try any funny business, I will hurt you, in ways you can’t imagine, and in places no one will see.”
The friendly, subtly sexy vibe he had exuded during their interactions at the club was gone. His voice was cold as ice. Anger and fear swirled together in the pit of her stomach.
She heard the revolver click again as he pulled it away from her neck, then the snap of the door latch and the scrape of a key in the lock. She remained still as his footfalls receded. She waited another minute, listening for any sound that might mean there was still someone in the room with her. When she felt sure she was alone, she opened her eyes.
The dizziness hit her like a wave at the Jersey Shore. Her vision was still blurry. She tried to stand but her legs collapsed under her, and she fell back onto the seat. Her muscles were jelly. Her brain was spinning. She didn’t have much time. She spied a small sink in the corner, stood again, holding on to the wall for support, and inched across the room to stand in front of it. She bent over the basin, steadying herself with one hand and splashing cold water over her face with the other.
The room started spinning again as soon as she straightened up. She leaned against the wall, pushed her shoulder length blond hair away from her face and pressed her fingers against her temples, taking a few long, deep breaths. She scanned the room for something she could use to pick the lock. She had to get out before he came back.
She lifted Granby’s jacket from the couch where they had been sitting, intending to check the pockets for anything useful, and uncovered her gold evening bag wedged between the cushions. It was a darling little Christian Louboutin clutch. She had picked it up at Saks; it was a perfect size for clubbing, and it matched the gold sandals like it was made for them. She sat down to steady herself, opened the bag, and removed a Swiss army knife from a small box printed with the word “tampons”.
She slipped the bag’s strap over her head, pushed the nausea away and crossed to the door. It took a few moments longer than usual for her to pick the lock because she had to press one hand against the wall as she worked, to keep from falling over. She scanned the hallway, it was empty. She slowed the door with her elbow so it wouldn’t make a sound as it closed behind her and headed for the back of the train.
She moved as quickly as she could past the closed doors of the sleeper’s private rooms, stopping, when the dizziness became too intense, to lean against the wall until it subsided. She reached the back of the car and pushed the button near the handle to open the sliding door. She was careful to step over the small space between the car platforms. The last thing she needed was to break a heel off a pair of fifteen-hundred-dollar sandals. The passageway between the cars was sealed, but the air was colder there, she thought it might help clear her head. She stayed for a few moments, no longer. She had to get to a phone before Granby realized she was gone.
She opened the door and stepped into a First-Class car. Well-dressed travelers lounged at tables set along the car’s windows, nursing complimentary drinks, awaiting the arrival of their upscale lunch entrees. She slowed her pace and tried to appear as normal as possible in her sparkly gold stiletto sandals and the pink halter-neck mini dress that hugged every curve and barely reached her thighs. The car’s occupants, deep in the self-absorption of the overly wealthy, barely noticed and did not in any way acknowledge her presence. She needed a cell phone, hers had been removed from her purse while she was unconscious, but she knew trying to explain her situation would take time she didn’t have.
She moved through the car and pushed the sliding door button. On the connecting platform, she took in great gulps of the cold air, feeling more sober and steady with each breath. She could see through the window that the next car was a Quiet Car. She moved quickly down the aisle between the movers and shakers busily, and quietly, engrossed in their deals and schemes. She needed to find the Dormitory Car, she could contact the conductor on a staff radio, and there was no time to lose. She continued down the aisle and saw the sign for the next car as she passed the last set of seats.
“Employees Only. No Admittance.” She released a long slow breath and let some of her tense muscles relax.
She reached into her clutch, opened the knife she had left loose in the bottom, and slit the bag’s lining, then wriggled her fingers into the space between the silky fabric and the side of the bag and pulled out her ID. She crossed the connecting platform and tried the door. It was unlocked. She opened it, stepped inside the car, and closed it behind her in one movement. The car was empty except for one person, completely androgynous in appearance, sporting cropped jet-black hair and the uniform of a train attendant. She took a step forward.
“Hey!” called the person whose solitude she had intruded upon. “You can’t be in here. Employees only.”
She held her ID up so the train attendant could see it.
“Joanna Sloan.” She said, dropping into a seat at a small table that was bolted to the floor. “I’m a registered PI. I was doing undercover work on a case last night when I was drugged and abducted. I woke up in a private room on this train with a man I recognize from before I passed out. He thinks I’m still drugged and locked in his room. He’s in the dining car. He made explicit threats against me, he has a gun, and I’m pretty sure my life is in danger. Can I use your phone? Is there a security officer on this train? I’m sorry – what’s your name?”
Her potential savior stared for a minute. “Wow,” they said, their eyes widening, “Like Stephanie Plum?”
“Kind of,” said Joanna, feeling a smile spread across her face for the first time since she found herself on the train. “She’s a bounty hunter, though, I’m a PI, but, yeah, kind of like Stephanie Plum.”
“Caspian,” said her fellow Plum fan, extending their hand. “Nice to meet you. No security guard on the train, I’m afraid. And we just hit the beginning of a long stretch of dead zone, no towers for miles, so I don’t think a cell phone is gonna help here. But we can call the conductor on the train’s comm system. He’ll know what to do.”
Caspian crossed to a black box on the wall, lifted the receiver and hit a few keys in quick succession.
“Sir,” they said breathlessly as soon as the connection was made. “We’ve got a situation here, with a passenger in danger. Long explanation and I’m not sure it’s safe for her to walk through the train right now. Could you come on back to the Dormitory Car?”
The conductor must have responded in the affirmative, because Caspian replaced the receiver and turned back to Joanna with a huge grin.
“This is so exciting. I mean…not that you were drugged and all…or that your life is in danger. I mean – you got away from the bad guy, and now we’re gonna catch him. It’ll be like Lula helping Stephanie grab a skip.”
“Something like that,” said Joanna. She turned as the car’s rear door slid open. The conductor was young, she guessed his age as thirty-eight, tall and muscular, with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. His conductor’s cap sat jauntily on what appeared to be a cleanly shaved head.
“Mrs. Roberts,” he extended his hand. “Marc Jefferson. We met when you and your husband boarded. You…uh…were a bit under the weather. I’m glad to see it looks like you’re feeling better.”
“She was drugged!” exclaimed Caspian.
“Thank you, but my name’s not Roberts,” Joanna began. She handed the conductor her ID. As he glanced at the photo and back at her, Joanna reached up and pulled off her blond wig, revealing short, dark curls. She rubbed her palm against her nose, then peeled off the prosthetic she had carefully applied before leaving for the club the night before. She plucked a piece of adhesive from between her eyes and smiled at him.
“My name is Joanna Sloan, Mr. Jefferson. I’m a private investigator. I’ve been working for the owner of the Gleason’s Steakhouse chain, Mr. Anthony Gleason. He received a tip that someone was planning to kidnap his daughter, Sophie. He suspected a man named Freddy Grimes who frequents a place called the Boho Beach Club. Mr. Gleason hired me to impersonate Sophie and gather information to thwart the scheme. I made my first visit to the Boho as Sophie last night. Our builds are similar, and I guess my disguise was convincing, because Grimes acted immediately. He had a thug named Granby slip some Rohypnol into my drink, then kidnap me and drag me onto this train, using the name Roberts and passing me off as his drunken wife.”
Joanna paused and reached down to slip off her sandals.
“Ah,” she sighed, “That’s better. My feet are killing me.” She hooked the sandals onto the strap of her bag. “Anyway, Granby thinks I’m still drugged. He made a phone call before he left for the dining car, and I overheard him say Mr. Gleason is sending five million to the station where we’re scheduled to arrive at 15:45. I don’t know what station that is…I don’t have any idea what train this is or where it’s going, but Granby made some pretty ugly threats against Sophie, he has a gun, and he thinks I’m her. I was hoping we could get in touch with the police…to meet us at the station?”
The conductor looked skeptical. “Well…” he began.
“I’d be happy to give you Mr. Gleason’s phone number,” Joanna interrupted. “So you can confirm my story, and the number of a detective I work with who can vouch for my character, but Caspian here says we’re in a cell phone dead zone. It won’t be long before Granby realizes I’m gone and comes looking for me, so I kind of need your help now.”
“Ms. Sloan, yes. I think you can appreciate that this is a lot of information to process.” He pulled a cell phone from his pocket. “We are due in Montreal at 15:45, with no scheduled stops before we cross into Canada, but there is one station between our location and the border. I may be able to get a call through to my supervisors and get approval for an unscheduled stop. They can contact the authorities to meet us there and…get this all sorted out.”
Joanna opened her mouth to reply but was interrupted by an ear-splitting screech. The train slowed, almost to a stop, then lurched forward and sped up again until it reached a speed that felt much too fast. The car began to sway. Caspian looked alarmed. The conductor started moving towards the door.
“I’d better see what’s up,” he called over his shoulder. Before he took two steps, the radio in his back pocket began to buzz insistently. He pulled it out and pushed the button to talk. “Jefferson,” he barked.
“Sir. We’ve got a problem here,” said a voice on the other end.
“That’s the engineer,” whispered Caspian.
“Speed’s a little high, Joe,” interrupted the conductor, “You need to pull back a bit...”
“I’m afraid I can’t, sir,” said Joe. Joanna could hear the fear in his voice. “There’s a man here with a gun,” continued the engineer, “he wants the speed way above normal, way above what’s safe, and he says we won’t be stopping at the border, he says this train doesn’t stop until he says it does. He wants to be put in contact with an Anthony Gleason. Says he wants five million dollars and a helicopter to airlift him off the train…and no law enforcement. Says if he sees anyone who looks the least suspicious, he’ll shoot me in the head.”
“Run the border? We can’t do that…”
"Guess our Mr. Granby knows I got away.”
“Do as he says,” said the conductor, calmly. “I’ll notify the border agents and whatever law enforcement has jurisdiction. We’ll get him what he wants, Joe. You just stay calm, do what you can to keep this train on the rails. Keep our passengers safe. I’ll take care of the rest.” He lifted his finger from the radio’s talk button. “Ms. Sloan, you stay here with Ms. Taylor…Caspian,” he added, in response to Joanna’s brief look of confusion. “I think it’s best we keep you away from this man Granby.”
He stepped onto the connecting platform. As the door slid open, they could hear a rumble of concern coming from the passengers in the next car. Joanna turned to Caspian.
“Any chance there’s an extra uniform around here somewhere?” She flashed a smile as she tugged on the hem of her pink mini. “I’d really like to get out of this dress.”
“There’s a spare uniform cabinet in the Dormitory Car, next one behind us…”
“I thought this was the Dormitory Car,” Joanna interrupted. “Sign says “Employees Only.”
“This one’s the staff kitchen and lounge car,” Caspian corrected. “Bunks are in the next car back. I’ll go grab you a uniform, you’ll probably need a small. Want to come along?”
“Thanks.” Joanna covered a yawn. “I’ll stay here, if that’s ok, I had a rough night, and today hasn’t been much better so far.” She dropped onto a couch, twisting slightly to avoid a duct tape covered tear in the vinyl that threatened to scratch her thigh. She leaned back, stretching her legs out in front of her, crossing her arms, and closing her eyes. “If I fall asleep while you’re gone, be sure and wake me…I don’t want to miss the ending of this story.”
Caspian nodded and headed for the Dormitory Car.
“There’s coffee on the snack counter,” they called over their shoulder, “and cookies. Help yourself.”
Joanna watched Caspian’s jet-black hair disappear as the lounge car’s door closed behind them. She stood up, slipped her purse strap over her shoulder, and padded to the opposite door on her bare feet. She moved quickly through the Quiet Car. With the passengers distracted by the train’s speed, she went unnoticed as she lifted a floppy brimmed hat from one seat and grabbed a sweater from the back of another. She kept moving, through the First Class Car and back into the sleeper. She stopped at the room she had woken up in, opened the door slowly, checked for occupants, and when she saw none, slipped inside. She sat on the small couch and strapped the sandals back on to her feet. She pulled the sweater on over the pink dress and pressed the floppy hat onto her head.
She opened the door carefully. There was no one in sight. She turned and headed for the Coach Class cars she knew were between her and the locomotive. She walked through the first car rapidly. As she entered the second, she saw the conductor at the other end. She could hear him reassuring passengers. He was stopping every few feet to answer a question, motioning with his hands for people to remain calm. She hoped he had contacted someone who notified the local police, or the FBI…they should be involved, she’d been kidnapped, after all. All kinds of law enforcement should be massing at the border station by now, waiting for the train to arrive.
She slipped into an empty seat, wrapped the sweater tightly around her, pulled the floppy hat down low on her forehead and tucked her feet, in their conspicuous gold sandals, under the seat in front of her. She turned her face towards the window, closing her eyes as if she were asleep when she heard the conductor approaching. In a stroke of luck, the woman in the seat behind her called the out a question and he passed Joanna without a glance in her direction, then worked his way to the back of the car, repeating his reassuring patter.
“I know it seems like we’re going too fast,” he told one group of passengers after another, “but this is a temporary situation, and we are working to remedy it. Please remain in your seats, you’ll be safest there. I’ll continue to update you on the situation as I am able.”
Joanna heard the swoosh of the automatic door as it opened and closed. She turned and saw that the conductor had moved on to the next car. She got up quickly, shrugged off the sweater, and continued towards the front of the train.
“You need to sit down missy,” called a white-haired woman as Joanna moved past her.
“Just heading back to my seat, ma’am,” Joanna gave a little wave and pointed vaguely in a forward direction. Several passengers gave her disapproving looks as she passed, it was unclear whether that was because she was ignoring the conductor’s instruction to stay in her seat or because the little pink dress was revealing a bit too much as she hurried by. She just smiled and kept moving. She passed a train attendant going the opposite way. He seemed anxious.
“Best get back to your seat, Ma’am,” he advised.
“On my way,” Joanna said cheerfully as she squeezed past him.
She hurried through two more cars and was traversing a third when the train rounded a bend. She had to grab onto a seat back to keep from falling as the car tilted and swayed. A picture from the television news reports of a recent train derailment flashed into her mind. They were definitely travelling at an unsafe speed.
She saw the locomotive through the car’s side windows. Just one more car to go. She slowed her pace and dropped the floppy hat onto an empty seat. She stepped to the left as she entered the connecting platform, so she couldn’t be seen from inside the locomotive car, but she could see in. The train’s engineer was at the controls. Granby was standing behind him with his back to her, his right arm held close to his body. His gun wasn’t visible, but she knew he was holding it in his right hand.
The rest happened so quickly, it seemed like it was over in an instant. She pushed the button and stepped inside just as Granby heard the whoosh of the door opening and turned around, a look of surprise on his face. Without hesitating for even a second, she executed two of the most difficult moves she had been taught in self-defense training. She transferred all her weight to her left leg, drew her right leg back, then kicked upward with the full force of her body, flexing her ankle to point the stiletto heel of her sandal directly into Granby’s groin. He grunted in pain as her kick landed and lowered the hand that held the gun. She reached out and grabbed his arm at the wrist, pointed the gun away from her, and twisted his arm around, flipping him to the ground.
Granby landed on his back. The gun flew out of his hand. Joanna kicked it away, then stepped on his arm, hard. Granby screamed in pain. The engineer saw the gun fly out of Granby’s hand and slowed the train. As they reached normal speed, Joanna could hear the faint sounds of passengers cheering. The car door opened, and the conductor rushed in, followed closely by Caspian, who had radioed him when she returned to find Joanna gone.
“You got him,” said Caspian, a look of admiration on their face.
The conductor bent and picked up the gun.
“Not an action I would have recommended you take, Ms. Sloan,” he said, “But…well done.”
Granby had curled into a fetal position and was moaning softly. Joanna crouched down and leaned in, so her mouth was close to his ear.
“What shall we tie you up with, eh Granby? Your shoelaces?”
His only response was another long moan.
Flashing lights were visible for miles as they pulled into the station. The conductor instructed the passengers to remain in their seats while the kidnapper who had hijacked the train was removed, but people stood and crossed the aisle to watch through the windows as Granby was escorted to a State Police car in handcuffs.
The train remained in the station for an hour while FBI agents boarded and took statements from Joanna, the conductor, the engineer, several passengers, and all the train attendants, including Caspian. Joanna gave Caspian a hug, and the blond wig for a souvenir, before she disembarked. Anthony Gleason had provided a substantial budget to fund the purchases necessary to disguise her as his daughter. Caspian should have the wig. Joanna planned to keep the sandals and the Louboutin clutch…a little bonus for going above and beyond.
News of Granby’s takedown in the locomotive car had spread through the train like wildfire. Passengers stood at the windows and cheered while a burly police officer reached out a hand to steady Joanna as she came down the steps onto the station platform in her stiletto-heeled sandals. She raised an arm to wave goodbye, causing the hem of her pink halter dress to rise to what some would call scandalous heights. She tugged it back into place, then crossed the parking lot to a blue ’68 Corvette convertible parked next a local black and white. As she approached, a sandy-haired man wearing dark sunglasses opened the passenger door with an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
Joanna nodded back.
She sat on the passenger seat and took off the sandals. He handed her a pair of fuzzy pink slippers.
“I heard you had a rough couple of days.”
Joanna pulled on the slippers. She wiggled her feet, then swung them into the car.
“This is why I married you, Detective Sloan,” she said with a satisfied sigh.
“I’m just glad you made it back in one piece.”
He leaned down and kissed the top of her head, then closed the car door, walked around to the driver’s side, got in and started the car. As they drove off, Joanna turned to watch the train pull away from the station, the faces of passengers pressed to its windows.
“So, what’s up next, Mrs. Sloan?” He laughed.
“I’m gonna need a shower, a back rub…and a pizza…” Her voice trailed off, her breathing slowed, and her dark curls spread over the leather headrest as she let herself lean back into a safe, drug-less sleep, her fingers resting loosely on the gold stiletto heels in her lap.
About the author
I've published stories in Highlights and other children's magazines. I've written songs that play on Sirius XM Radio. I'm currently looking to publish my first novel, a cozy mystery with embedded links to recordings of five original songs.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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