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Part 2: Crisped Out Wreck
“The Starlight Spectre was a night route, y’see,” continued Rudy, “The conductor was one McGee or MacGee, somethin’ like that. His thing was consistency. Known for it all around, and wouldn’t you be surprised to know that keeping trains on time was once a prideful pursuit. People took it as seriously as anything else.”
“Still a phrase we use today,” Barton said.
Rudy nodded. “So as it were, McGee or MacGee and the Starlight was known to have never—and I mean never—been off schedule. Years ‘n’ years of being perfectly on time, bango! It was some kinda record, something a town could rightly boast about. Being a small town as it is now, smaller still then if you can imagine, that kinda badge was one worn with an especial pride, y’see.
“‘Course there was those who thought it was little unfair. Night routes were easier to maintain scheduling with, less overall traffic, fewer complications. Starlight ran a round trip route from something like 10PM to 6AM, always in the dark or near it, usually hauling cargo but also night shift fellas who made their bread by pulling rocks outta mines.
“As the story goes—and what’s remindin’ me of it is this blasted heat—it was a hot summer night… as the story goes some tourists was in town for a vacation or what have you, and having heard of the famed ne’er-be-late ride decided to hop on and have a midnight trip. So's they could brag ‘bout it. It wasn’t any special trip, just business as usual, and the conductor would take anyone with a ticket and the sense to arrive and depart well on time.
“These tourists, the workers for the night and whatever cargo they got leaves on time, from the eastern point. Old east station’s gone now, they all are, but it’s right near where Faulkner road turns into the turnpike, aye?”
Barton nodded. He knew the spot.
“Aye. It leaves, 10PM sharp, and then never arrives at the next point. A station ‘bout four hours west. You can imagine all the commotion at that. After years, and not just late but not showing! So after a certain stretch they have to send out a search party, since there was no word, no communication, no nothing. They send out a little crew on foot, not wanting to send a pushcart down the tracks in case Starlight’s just really really late, see? So it takes them all night and inta mornin’ to go and come back with what they done found.
“And this is where it makes no sense, this is where all them stories come from. The crew that went out comes back, all manner of horrified. The billyclubs are rounded up and they all go back down together. And they find Starlight Spectre, or what’s left of her. The whole train is smack dead in the middle of the route, burned out to nothing but a husk. Just sittin’ there pretty, parked, like nothing’s a-wrong ‘cept it’s just a crisped out wreck.”
“It burned?” Barton said, trying to imagine it. You just didn’t think of trains as things that burned down. Crashed, broke, maybe exploded if it were an action movie.
“Aye. Burned as through and through as something that can well be burned. The first theories was some of the tourists were saboteurs, right? Some rivals from another train company that didn’t like the Starlight’s record. Or maybe they had an issue with McGee; he wasn’t known to be friendly, just punctual. Seemed to fit, since there was never any bodies recovered.”
“What? Come on,” said Barton.
“So the story goes. You can look up the newspaper yerself. No bodies. But not one of the people on that ride ever was seen again, which made the saboteur guess a bad guess as far as guesses go. Folks tryin’ to sound practical said the fire coulda got so hot that the bodies disintegrated. Mayhap. Train carried a lot of industrial cargo that was certified flammable. Mining boomsticks and fuels and the like. This is what most people who prefer to stay practical like to say. Freak accident, drunk tourists, cigarette, boom. Only one problem that I see, that others see too, that no one likes to look at too close.”
Rudy glanced over, meeting Barton’s eyes. Barton ventured a guess. “I’ve never heard of a fire hot enough to disintegrate a body entirely. There should have at least been teeth?”
“True, true. But like I say, that cargo, who knows? I ain’t a chemist, maybe you can ask your fancy UG Tech date. No, what bothers me most is that that track ran right through the forest. You’ve been there, you know it. A fire hot enough to fry up teeth, surely I ain’t heard of one either but if one did sprout up in the middle of the damn trees you’d figure there’d be something to show for it. Forests are made of wood last I went and checked.”
“There was no other burning?” Barton said.
“Trees were jus' fine. On toppa that, they say they found the Starlight cold as a corpse done drown in a well, Barton. You tell me now how such a thing is possible.”
There was a scuff and squeak on the floor, and Barton almost jumped.