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Next Stop

by Rudy Vener 4 months ago in Mystery
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Derek Nelson's darkest ride

Next Stop

Kerthunk. Kerthunk. Kerthunk.

The rhythmic pounding of train wheels filled Derek's head as consciousness slowly returned to his brain. He opened his eyes, blinking the stickiness out of his left eyelid, and stared at the back of the burnt orange train seat ahead of him.

Kerthunk. Kerthunk. Kerthunk.

He inhaled the old familiar scent of commuter car, a mixture of stale sweat, fading perfumes, and aging vinyl.

Straightening in his seat, he looked around. The windows were dark, reflecting the interior of the train car. Row after row of empty seats, lit by overhead panels stretched before and behind him.

Why was he on a train? He couldn't recall. When had he boarded? He couldn't recall that either.

He closed his eyes again and tried to dredge up his last memory. He popped his eyes open. Driving to work. He'd been on his way to the courthouse. The Vermelli trial began this morning.

But this was crazy. How had he gotten on this train? He never took the train to work any more. He turned sharply to stare out his window, leaning forward and blocking the overhead lights with his cupped hands to see outside. It was black out there. Either they were in an unlit tunnel or it was night.

But it couldn't be night. He'd been driving to work in the morning. What time was it? He or his keys, or anything else. Including his briefcase. Where was his briefcase? Now frantic, he scanned the seat beside him, the overhead rack, the floor. Nothing.

What was happening to him? Was this a dream? He pinched the back of his hand. Ouch! No, it wasn't.

He stood, legs trembling in time with the thunking wheels and stepped sideways into the aisle. He stared forward and backwards at all the empty seats. Was he the only passenger?

Then he saw the top of a head. It had long, light brown hair, and slumped forward in the center of a seat five rows ahead and across the aisle.

Somehow Derek knew it was a woman. Apparently the only other passenger in this car.

More relieved than he liked to admit to himself, Derek grabbed the hand holds on the corners of the seat backs, and lurched down the aisle until he stood over the other passenger. He was right. It was a woman. He guessed she was in her mid to late thirties, about his own age. Apparently asleep, her oval face tilted forward, looking pale in the overhead lighting. Dressed in a matching blue blazer and skirt, she looked vulnerable without makeup and with her long lashed eyelids closed.

Derek looked around, not wanting to wake her, but there was no one else.

"Excuse me," he said.

She didn't reply. Or move.

"Excuse me," he repeated, louder this time.

Still no response.

For a fleeting moment he wondered if she was dead. But no, her chest rose and fell in a slow breath. He thought about tapping her shoulder, but couldn't overcome a strong reluctance to physically disturb her. Instead he made his way forward to the end of the car.

From here he could see into the next car. And the next. And the one beyond that. As far as he could tell, all the train cars were empty. No passengers. No conductors. No one.

The hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle. Where was everyone? And what was he doing on a train with only one other passenger?

Derek pushed open the door and stepped onto the metal plate of the dark vestibule. To either side, closed doors which would open onto station platforms contained windows showing only darkness. The darkness seemed too open to be a tunnel. The train must be outdoors, but there were no town or street lights, no roads or traffic lights, no moon or starlight. Derek peered out first one window then the other. Nothing.

At last he stepped across to the vestibule of the next car, pushed open its door, and stepped inside. This car too was empty and lighted.

Growing used to the motion of the train and moving faster, he walked its length, letting his gaze sweep back and forth. There must be a conductor somewhere on this train. Maybe napping on a seat, or standing out of sight on one of the vestibules between cars.

But there were no more passengers and no conductor. He crossed to the next car, and the next. At last he reached the first car. The door at its front did not open, but light from the overheads spilled through the window in the door to reveal the featureless gray rear of the train engine. There had to be a driver, a train engineer, but the door was locked shut. There was no way to reach the engine.

Maybe the conductor was in a toilet. But as Derek retraced his steps, he discovered that there were no toilets on these commuter cars.

With growing anxiety, Derek retraced his steps until at last he reached the woman again. She was still sleeping, but now he saw her stir slightly. Was she waking up?

"Excuse me," he said for the third time.

But as the train wheels continued their endless thunking under his feet, she did not wake. Impatient to talk with someone, anyone, he reached out to shake her awake. But then he snatched his hand back. He looked towards the rear of the car. Through the rear door window several more cars extended backwards. These looked just as empty as the ones in front, but he'd better check them out. Especially before shaking another passenger awake to tell her he was scared of being alone.

Derek walked to the door and pushed through. Now more used to the swaying of the train, it didn't take him long to reach the last car without encountering another soul. Just like the front end, the rearmost door did not open. Derek stared out behind the train. The tracks, lit by a pool of light cast by the trains tail lamps, vanished a short way into the blackness of the night.

He tried to spot an outside light, but they must be going through some uninhabited rural or even wilderness area. And the sky must be cloudy. There were no stars. No moon.

Apprehension crept up the back of Derek's neck. He turned abruptly and ran, stumbling back to the sleeping woman.

Only she was no longer sleeping. When Derek stopped beside her seat, she turned her dark eyes up at him.

"What's going on?" she asked. "Who are you, and why am I on this train?"

Derek's shoulders slumped. His grip tightened on the handhold at the corner of the woman's seat back.

"I was hoping you could answer those questions for me," he said.

The woman frowned. Small lines formed at the corners of her eyes as she stared at him with a mix of fear and distrust. She shifted away from him, edging closer toward her window.

"I don't know what you mean," she said. "All I know is that I was driving to work, and now I'm here."

Realizing he'd been looming over her, Derek stepped back and lowered himself into the seat across the aisle. He deliberately tried to slow his breathing.

"Same for me," he admitted. "Exactly the same. I was driving to work, and woke up here."

He watched as she digested that. Her features went slack as she tried to come up with some sensible, logical reason why the two of them would suddenly go from driving into work one morning and then suddenly wake up on a moving train.

"So what happened to me?" she demanded. "And what happened to my car?"

"Probably the same thing that happened to me and my car," he said. "And by the way, my name is Derek Nelson."

She glared at him suspiciously, clearly unwilling to grant him the status of fellow victim in whatever plot had ensnared her.

"Look," he said. "I'm in as much in the dark as you are. But clearly whatever happened to me, happened to you as well. We were both rendered unconscious, and we were both abducted and brought onto this train. And I am clueless about when and how and why it happened." He was glad his voice didn't shake.

"It sounds like roofies," said the woman. Then she added grudgingly, "I'm Jordan Woodbrook."

Derek paused. She was right. It did sound like roofies. At least the losing consciousness and loss of memory parts. But how would someone drug both of them? And then move their unconscious bodies onto a train? And send that train off on a trip, empty except for them? And why go to all that trouble?

"Where do you work?" asked Jordan, obviously thinking along similar lines.

"I'm an assistant prosecutor in the D.A.'s office," said Derek.

Jordan nodded thoughtfully, cocking one eyebrow upward. "Well, that's it then, isn't it. You send crooks to jail. One of your victims probably did this for revenge."

"They aren't victims," said Derek, irritated. "The people they cheat, rob and assault are the victims."

Jordan waved a hand in the air. "You know what I mean," she said.

Derek did know, but he wasn't buying it. He looked around the empty train car as the wheels continued pounding out their steady beat. None of the hundreds of sorry losers he'd prosecuted in his ten years in the DA's office would have the ability to pull off a complicated and expensive scheme like this.

These thoughts reminded him of today's trial. He groaned and slumped back in his seat.

"I should be in court today," he said, rubbing his temples. "I'm missing the start of an important trial and I'm the lead prosecutor."

"Well excuse me," said Jordan. "I'm only missing the first date I've had in three years."

"Three years?" Derek looked over at her and noted for the first time that she was really quite attractive. "Sorry."

"Yes, well it took me that long to get over an awful divorce." Jordan sighed and brushed a strand of brown hair off her face. "I finally connected with this guy, Randy, on a dating app for adult professionals, and we were supposed to meet for a quick lunch." Her lips quirked. "The recommended short first lunch date. I guess I'll be standing him up." She glanced towards the window by her seat. "If I haven't already."

"So where do you work?" he asked, more to be polite than out of real interest.

"I'm the office manager for a fashion magazine publisher," said Jordan. "No one gets mad at us unless maybe a makeup tip doesn't pan out. Whatever's happening here, I'm pretty sure it's your fault."

"Now wait a second," said Derek. For a moment his anxiety gave way to irritation. "You have absolutely no evidence to support that."

"I don't need evidence," snapped Jordan. "We're not in court, or haven't you noticed?" She looked up and down the length of the car. "Where are we going, anyway?"

"No idea," said Derek, wondering what he and Jordan could possibly have in common to put them in this same predicament.

"Well, what does your ticket say?" asked Jordan, looking on the seats and overhead rack for something.

"I don't have one," said Derek, watching her bend over and check under the seats.

"I can't find my purse," she said, glaring at him.

"Yeah? Welcome to the club," he said. "I can't find my phone. Or my wallet. Or my keys. Or anything else."

Jordan threw herself back against her seat, her mouth tight. She crossed her arms.

"Where is the conductor?" she asked.

"There isn't one," said Derek. "None that I could find. There isn't anyone else on this train at all. Just the two of us."

Jordan gaped at him, her eyes going wide. He felt a little sorry for her, even if she was being an obnoxious jerk. At least he didn't have to deal with her when finding this all out on his own.

She stood suddenly. "I'm going to look for the conductor," she said, and sidled past his seat as if expecting him to lunge at her.

"Whatever floats your boat," he said, and settled back to wait.

Like him, she started forward. Derek expected her to check out all the cars up front, return, and check out the ones behind them.

Only Jordan didn't return. What was taking her so long? He counted five hundred thunks of the train wheels. Then another five hundred. How much time was that? He had no idea. Guess then. Call it ten minutes. Whatever it was, it was too long. Fighting down a tightness in his chest, Derek stood up and started forward, not quite running.

He found Jordan in the second car from the front. She was not alone. She sat next to an elderly, white-haired lady who appeared to be sleeping.

"Just the two of us?" asked Jordan, giving him a stony stare. "Really? I guess this lady doesn't count as a person to you."

"I swear, I didn't see her when I first checked," said Derek. To his horror he felt his face flush, but there really was no escaping that he had somehow overlooked a full third of the train population. Even so, he was delighted to see a third person.

"Didn't see her?" asked Jordan, her eyebrows lowered. "If you prepare for trial the same slapdash way you search a train, it's no wonder crime is so high."

"The two situations are totally unconnected," said Derek.

Jordan rolled her eyes. "I suppose that's you being a lawyer again."

"Now dears, we shouldn't argue."

Derek jerked his head to look at the elderly woman. She was awake now, watching him and Jordan out of bright, twinkling eyes. Once again, his face flushed.

"Sorry," he said. "We're both a little upset."

"Quite understandable," said the elderly lady. "I'm Mrs. Ida Langford, by the by."

Derek and Jordan introduced themselves.

"Do you know anything about our situation?" Derek asked, looking doubtfully at Mrs. Langford's thin shoulders and frail arms.

"Actually I do," said Mrs. Langford. She reached out and gently tapped the back of the seat in front of her. "I believe you can adjust the seats to face each other."

Derek found a catch that let the seat back tilt forward. Then he and Jordan sat opposite Mrs. Langford, their knees not quite touching.

"So please tell us what you know," he said.

"Very well," said Mrs. Langford. She reached up, touched her white hair, and smiled sadly. "But it's what I believe, not what I know."

Kerthunk. Kerthunk. Kerthunk.

The train wheels beat their steady rhythm as Derek and Jordan leaned forward, and Mrs. Langford began to speak.

None of them noticed the faint glow, barely perceptible through the train car windows, that appeared ahead of the train.


Global Press Corporation - News update. - Third fatality in freight train derailment.

Ida Langford, 72, has died after her week long fight in critical care. Mrs. Langford, who incurred multiple injuries when a freight car fell from a bridge span onto a crowded road last week, died today at Mercy General Hospital. Mrs. Langford's daughter reported that her mother briefly regained consciousness just hours before her passing.

The derailment, which dropped a loaded freight car fifteen feet off a collapsing bridge span onto the roadway, injured 27 motorists and killed 2 outright. In a bizarre twist, investigators cite the cause of the collapse to faulty materials used in the new bridge span constructed by Vermelli Brothers Construction company, the firm whose president, Mr. Vincent Vermelli, would have been prosecuted this week on unrelated corruption charges by one of the initial victims of the accident, Assistant District Attorney Derek Nelson.

Lawyers for Mr. Vermelli have issued a motion for mistrial, citing the negative coverage resulting from this accident. Judge Randall Hardy, who is hearing the case, has not yet declared his decision on this motion.


About the author

Rudy Vener

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