Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter One, Part One

Chapter One

City of the Mind

New York City, the near future.

"And I'm telling you that phantom train's gonna kill us all!" Jack McGinnis howled at Kevin Traynor.

Traynor kept gazing out of the window of his office near the top of First American Building. He had been enjoying the view for quite a while, waiting for an uneasy McGinnis to find the courage to tell his tale. It seemed unreal. After all, Traynor was standing in the tallest and most advanced skyscraper in the world — on a floor far above the spires of all other structures. This building in turn rose in the center of the greatest city, country, and civilization man ever built.

The skyline of Midtown Manhattan greeted him out of a radiant blue sky. The metallic spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings reflected the summer sun. They were framed by a chain of new super skyscrapers stretching from Midtown East to Times Square and beyond. From river to river they soared, the black monoliths of Trump World and Durand Chemical Towers, the jagged spire of Bank of America Tower next to the communications tower of Condé Nast Building, and the twin office towers and tall apartment buildings of Atlantis Center along the Hudson River. Faced with the greatest and most striking works of rational man, Traynor was asked to believe in ghost stories and phantom trains.

That bundle of nerves McGinnis had introduced himself as the manager of the Zenith Mine — a vast Arizona copper mine owned by First American Corporation. While Traynor was watching the skyline, McGinnis in turn observed Traynor standing in the light that filtered in through the tinted plate glass. There is something there, thought McGinnis. More than meets the eye. In a crowd, Traynor would not have stood out at first glance. He was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor slim. But the determined stance of his figure in front of the window and in front of the world beyond suggested a man who was a confident ruler of nature. Just what McGinnis needed.

Slightly swiveling his chair, McGinnis looked from Traynor to his office furniture. Besides the huge desk with the black leather swivel chairs there were bookcases, a high-end audio system, and a large-screen television set. A smaller desk in a corner had been designed to support a sophisticated computer terminal with all kinds of peripherals. Obviously, Traynor valued knowledge and information. Framed diplomas, tucked away in a far corner of the room, away from the windows, spoke of Traynor's training as a lawyer — although that was not exactly what he did for a living now.

"Listen, Mr. Traynor…"

Traynor turned around. Dark-blond hair, cropped short, framed an angular face highlighted by blue eyes. "Kevin. If you keep telling me campfire stories, you might as well call me Kevin."

"OK, Kevin. You call me Mac. My boss at First American Mining told me you're the kinda firefighter for this company. I've heard you've been taking care of all kinds of trouble and monkey business for First American. So I guess this is a job for you. We're losing the good men hunting for the phantom train — and the worthless ones 'cause they're running away scared."

"Worthless ones?"

McGinnis took off his Stetson and tugged at his grizzled beard hanging down on a plaid flannel shirt. "You know, the kind of folks you get to do physical labor in the middle of nowhere in an economy like this. All the clever folks are moving to the cities, for better jobs, higher pay, nightlife, and you know what. We're left with the worst kinds of backwoodsmen. They're such a superstitious lot that most of them run away as soon as they hear about the phantom train. Even the calmer sorts figure they just move a couple dozen miles away to where ranch hands are wanted instead of getting scared out of their wits every other night or so by the phantom train."

"If you offered them higher pay…"

"There's a limit to how much we can afford to pay for unskilled labor, but there's no limit to what it'd take to get those guys to face what they believe is the devil incarnate. Can you ever pay a man enough to face his worst fear?

"Yet, that's not even the end of the story. Remember what I said about my best workers? Even if I had enough labor, I'd still have to replace three mining engineers. Of course you know that engineers are at a premium in today's job market. And problem number two has direct bearing on problem number one. Reason most laborers are so scared is that those engineers got killed by the phantom locomotive."


"One night Greg Ramos must have gone hunting the phantom train. He never came back. The sheriff sent out search parties — all they found was his truck parked near the phantom line. When the search was called off, two of my best engineers, Pete Chalmers and Fred Douglass, raised Cain about how we couldn't give up on poor Greg, and that grown men can't be afraid of ghosts. They swore they'd get to the bottom of this business — if it were the last thing they did. Well, it was."


"It was the last thing they ever did. They vanished. Pete's truck was last seen one night heading out of town in the general direction of the railroad. They never came back in the morning. Townsfolk were so spooked they wouldn't even volunteer for search parties. State police found Pete's wrecked truck below an old railroad trestle — but no bodies. That settled it — or unsettled folks. As you'd have it. That day, our labor shortage began in earnest. So the ghost train turned Jinxville into a ghost town."


"Actually, Jenkinsville…"

"So you already renamed your town in honor of your phantom train?"

Read on…

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