The Railwire Traveling Baggage Car
From behind the bar, as he idly dried shot glasses, Johnny watched Dan stagger out of JB's, just as he'd done almost every afternoon for as long as Johnny could remember. The world was spinning along as per normal.
When Glenn spotted Dan stumble through the crowd on the corner, he kept one eye pinned on the drunk while he scanned the traffic with the other. "One of these days," the veteran cop thought, "he's gonna meet his maker on this corner." He winced as a car screeched to an abrupt stop, horn blaring.
"Affernoon, ossifer," Dan slurred with a grin as he limped past Glenn. The smell of whiskey was strong enough to make Glenn's jaw clench; he nodded in silent response as Dan did his best to maintain course toward the old Rearden machine screw plant, where he often hid to sleep off the worst of his drinking binges. Glenn knew it would serve no purpose to go after him; better to just let the world keep spinning along as per normal.
As Dan wobbled around the corner of the Rearden building, he stopped dead in his tracks—a challenge in and of itself considering his condition—as he came face-to-face, more or less, with... a sheep. "Wha—" was all he could manage.
The sheep looked up at Dan. "Where a-a-a-a-am I?" it uttered.
Dan blinked. Drool began to descend from his still-open mouth. "Wha—" he repeated.
"I said," the sheep insisted, "Where a-a-a-a-am I?"
Dan stumbled back a couple of feet until his back met the brick building, then he allowed himself to collapse slowly to the ground. "This ain't happenin'," he groaned. As the sheep stepped toward him, Dan's eyes widened to unnatural proportions, and he raised his hands to shield himself from the apparition.
"Stop it!" a voice rang out from between the buildings. A man darted up behind the sheep. "You know better than to talk to strangers! Get back in the baggage car and wait for me. I'll figure out what's what."
Head lowered, the sheep did as she was told, while the uniformed man observed his surroundings, then approached Dan. "Hey, buddy."
Dan cautiously lowered his trembling hands. "Wha—" he croaked.
"Hey, I'm Jim. Can you tell me where we are—I mean, where I am?"
Dan blinked at Jim for a moment, then glanced around nervously. "Th-th-that... sheep?"
"The one that... talked... to me?"
Jim let out a somewhat contrived-sounding belly-laugh. "My friend, you've had a few too many, eh?"
"See, I'm from out of town, a little lost. Can you tell me where I am?"
"Um... corner of Broad an' Olden."
"That's a start. What town?"
Dan became wary. "Tren'n?"
Jim frowned. "Trenton? New Jersey?"
Dan just blinked, his jaw going slack again.
"Waaaay of course," Jim mumbled to himself. He swung around to have a look at the baggage car. It sat on a weedy siding wedged between two abandoned industrial buildings. Jim face-palmed. "Don't know how we're gonna get out of this one."
Hands on his hips, face scrunched into a frown, Jim did a one-eighty and looked up and down Broad Street. Then his eyes lit up. "Yes!"
Dumbfounded and ready to swear off the booze, Dan watched as Jim darted across the street toward the siding beside Capitol Fuel, where a switcher was spotting a tank car.
Jim scrambled up beside the bright yellow switcher and started waving and shouting at the engineer. Finally he caught the grizzled old fellow's attention. "Hey! Hey! I could use your help!"
The engineer brought his switcher to a stop, and the diesel dropped to a rattling idle. "What's the problem?" he shouted back.
Jim just pointed toward the baggage car across the street. The engineer looked up and stared in disbelief. "What the f**k...?" he gulped, and looked back down at Jim.
"You don't want to know. But I need your help getting it out of there."
The engineer stroked his yellow-white beard thoughtfully for a moment, then grinned oddly. "Been a while since I've had a challenge! Lucky for you I'm also the railroad's dispatcher! Come on up in the cab!"
Jim squeezed through the door to be greeted by two grimy, deeply-lined old faces.
"I'm Jim," the engineer said as he thrust a greasy hand toward Jim.
"Makes two of us," Jim replied as he shook the engineer's hand—a hand that seemed rather large for a man whose feet didn't touch the cab floor.
"This here's Pete: fireman, brakeman, and just about every other man on the Tren'n Trans."
An enormous bear of a man, Pete was so large that he was eye-to-eye with Engineer Jim, even though Pete sat on a toolbox on the floor. Without uttering a word, he eyed Conductor Jim warily, then turned his head to the window and spat out some of his Mail Pouch. The thick, brownish glob landed smack on the windshield of a passing car. Pete grunted in satisfaction.
"He don't say much. So, tell me, how the hell did that f**king thing end up there?" Engineer Jim asked, motioning at the baggage car.
"It's a long story," Conductor Jim said, a little sheepishly. "Maybe another time. I just need it moved. How close to the Pennsylvania mainline can you get it?"
"Pennsy main?" Engineer Jim blurted. He eyed Conductor Jim a little more closely, squinting at the vaguely familiar but still unusual-looking uniform. "You ain't from 'round here, are ya?"
"No, to be sure."
"Hmmm. Well, lucky for you, the TTC used to interchange with the Pennsy. I can get you pretty close. But the last couple turnouts were tore up, so I can't get you physically on the line. That'd be a Federal offense anyways." Engineer Jim saw Conductor Jim's shoulders slump a bit. "But I know someone with a crane," he added with a wink.
Conductor Jim sighed. "Close will have to do."
"Very well, then," Engineer Jim announced as he spun around in his seat, releasing the engine brake, throwing the reverser, and yanking the throttle all in one smooth motion. "Hang on to yer fam'ly jewels, son, we're goin' for a ride!" The one still-functional horn on Number 3 wailed as they crept across Broad Street, and Jim chuckled as cars rammed on their brakes to avoid careening into Number 3's trucks. "We're gonna have to take a bit of a detour to get to the old Rearden siding," Engineer Jim advised over the roar of the diesel, "and Glenn's not gonna like this one bit!"
"That's fine," Conductor Jim replied, wondering who Glenn was. The drunk, maybe? He stared down at the cars lined up at the grade crossing, noting for the first time that he was a stranger to this time as well as this place. The world was definitely not spinning along as per normal.
After weaving and shaking around a sharp bend, Engineer Jim brought Number 3 to a shuddering halt beside a long brick warehouse, and looked expectantly at Pete. "Hope that f**ker will still throw." After Pete left the cab, Engineer Jim leaned over his shoulder to Conductor Jim. "Actually, I'm more worried about the one in the middle of Broad Street."
Wheels squealed and groaned in protest as the switcher negotiated the sharp curve beside the old Rearden plant. Then Engineer Jim slowed to a crawl as he crept out into the middle of Broad Street, his casual grin replaced by a firm, focused gaze as he studied the traffic intently.
Conductor Jim watched as they inched their way past JB's Corner Bar and Greene Electric Supply, the wheels crunching through gravel and debris in the flangeways, finally coming to a halt where the rails disappeared into the asphalt. Engineer Jim nodded to Pete, who dutifully exited the cab.
Meanwhile, Glenn was making his way through crowds of gaping onlookers toward the switcher. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted up at Engineer Jim.
"Nice to see you too, Glenn!" Engineer Jim shouted back. "Running a special today. Get ready!"
"You could've at least warned us!"
"Don't get yer f**kin' panties in a knot, I'll treat you to a couple Jacks when it's all over!" Engineer Jim chuckled as he watched Glenn scramble around the end of Number 3 to attempt unjamming the traffic. Then he frowned, and leaned out of the cab window for a look in the other direction: Pete was still struggling with the turnout throw buried in the street. "Might be a while," he advised Conductor Jim, and gestured at the corner bar. "Wanna grab a brew? John at the bar is a friend of mine—he gets me my drinks for free."
"Thanks, no," Conductor Jim answered, thinking there's someplace that he'd rather be.
After what seemed like an eternity, Pete struggled back into the cab, glaring at Engineer Jim as he fell onto the toolbox, still huffing and puffing.
"That's my man!" Engineer Jim said as he released the brake and got Number 3 moving again.
They stopped in the middle of the curve, just clear of the street, and Engineer Jim inclined his head to Pete. Conductor Jim watched Pete approach Dan, who was still slouched on the ground at the corner of the Rearden building. Pete motioned in vain at Dan to move, then picked Dan up and shoved him around the corner out of the way. Then Pete trudged over to the end of the baggage car and gave Engineer Jim the signal to proceed slowly. Pete motioned to stop, and he wrestled the couplers into alignment. Finally, after a satisfying clunk, Pete indicated success. Engineer Jim took up the slack; Pete hooked up the air hoses and opened the cocks.
Engineer Jim began charging the train brake line, staring at the pressure gauge expectantly. "I can only assume the brakes work on that f**kin' thing," he growled.
"They should be fine," Conductor Jim replied.
Engineer Jim grunted. "Well, we'll see." The pressure gauge came up to full, he grunted again, and made an application. After a cycle, he looked down at Pete, who indicated the brakes worked. Engineer Jim seemed pleasantly surprised. "Hmmm. We just may be able to pull this off."
After three short horn blasts, Engineer Jim began to pull the baggage car out, a half-inch at a time. As Number 3 crept back out onto Broad Street, there was a sudden lurch and a gut-wrenching screeching sound. Engineer Jim immediately dumped the brakes and spun around to Conductor Jim.
"Let me have a look," Conductor Jim said as he scrambled out of the cab and down to the parking lot next to the siding. He gazed up in horror at the baggage car, which was wedged solidly against the side of the factory building. If he'd had lunch, it would be splattered on the ground. He could only imagine how the sheep must have felt. After a moment, he came to the realization that the damage was already done, and there was little else to do but to try and keep going. He signaled up to Engineer Jim to proceed.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Engineer Jim complied, and once he had a full brake charge, he wound up Number 3's prime mover—the great black cloud it belched was a clear indication this was a rare event. The horrific screeching resumed, and Conductor Jim watched helplessly as the building tore at the side of the baggage car, popping rivets, ripping off trim and creasing the steel side.
When at last the baggage car was free of the building, Engineer Jim worked the horn for all it was worth as he dragged the car across the end of Olden Avenue, past a drop-jawed Glenn who was doing his best to hold back traffic. He glanced back and forth between Pete, who stood at the turnout throw across from the bar, and the end of the switchback. Pete signaled to keep going, and Engineer Jim pressed on past the ends of the rails, wheels crunching through the asphalt. His eyes widened as they crept towards a long-gone diamond where the switchback once crossed the TTC main. Finally Pete indicated they'd cleared the points, and Engineer Jim slammed the brakes, heaving a sigh of relief. With barely an inch to spare, Pete threw the points in the other direction, and made a beeline for the cab. Conductor Jim followed close behind.
Engineer Jim and Pete shared a long look of relief, then they both glared at Conductor Jim, whose eyes were clenched shut as he silently offered his deity thanks. Two short blasts of the horn jolted Conductor Jim back to reality. Engineer Jim hit the reverser and started shoving the baggage car back down Broad Street.
Leaning against the crossing shanty on Broad Street, Dan watched the baggage car slowly swing around behind the Rearden plant and disappear under the Olden Avenue bridge. When the last squeal faded into the traffic noise, he staggered back in the direction of JB's. He met Glenn at the corner, and paused to offer a look of utter disbelief; Glenn just grinned reassuringly and patted Dan on the shoulder. Then Dan staggered back into the bar.
Johnny nodded patiently as Dan related the bizarre tale of the baggage car at the Rearden plant as best he could. Johnny chuckled to himself... the world was spinning along as per normal.
Or so he thought... as screams of terror suddenly arose from the street outside...
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