By Gil Hale – firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.
Blair peered uneasily into the depths of his ‘veggieburger’ and wished again he’d never fallen for Jim’s wager. Pride. That was what did it. He just hated to admit that in one specific academic area he might have a few shortcomings; if you could even call navigation an academic area. Jim probably did it by instinct, with no more thought than a homing pigeon. But he had accepted the wager and now he was going to have to endure watching Jim munch on something Jamie Oliver would ban from dog food. Wondering which vegetable could conceivably give his own meal such a distinctive grey color, he looked across at Jim and was surprised to see he had paused mid-enjoyment and was clearly listening to something.
“We need to go,” Jim said urgently.
Blair jumped to his feet. It couldn’t be soon enough. All the same, there had to be some reason, especially as Jim was, regrettably, rolling his napkin round his own burger to take the abomination with him.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure. I heard part of a conversation; it came from a small truck – dirty paint, white, some blue marking…”
He was looking towards the intersection. The traffic was moving at snail’s pace thanks to Cascade’s creative approach to road improvement — which involved artistic arrangements of traffic cones in the busiest areas. Presumably he spotted what he was looking for, because he ran for his own truck. Blair panted along behind, thankful that there was very little of the grey matter in his stomach. They were faster than the traffic on foot, but in Jim’s truck, by the time they had forced their way out between two annoyed fellow motorists, the vehicle they wanted was across the intersection.
“They were talking about heading for the rail track and the train finishing someone off,” Jim said shortly, barging across in his turn. “One of them said it’d be a fitting end.”
“Can you hear them now,” Blair asked, hoping that if they ran into anyone they’d be going too slowly to damage more than the paintwork.
“Try to remember the exact sound of the voice and look for it like you’d look for a familiar face in a crowd.”
Jim just missed scraping a bus. “Got them. It sounds bad, chief. I’m only getting it in spurts but I just heard him say something about dancing on the remains.”
“Sounds like a script for a bad B movie. You’re sure it’s not some play on his radio?”
“There was this famous incident…”
“Orson Welles. War of the Worlds. I know. Believe me, chief, I can tell live voices from canned.”
Blair had just bitten his tongue as they bumped a traffic island and was impeded from any answer other than an inarticulate yelp as Jim took a hasty turn then cursed a slow, elderly jaywalker who blocked his way. They were clearly heading for the rail track by now, but Blair still couldn’t really believe in this scenario. It was more Perils of Penelope than Major Crime. “Jim, do you think there could be some other explanation?”
“It’s not easy to drive and listen,” Jim said shortly, proving it with a sharp swerve that whacked Blair’s elbow against the door. “I told you, I’m getting fragments. The driver wants ‘the bastard flattened’. That bit was clear. And something about costing him his relationship.”
“Yes, but on the rail track? What’s wrong with a hit and run, or a stabbing, or… ”
“Plenty. Damn this bus.”
“Well yes, morally, but practically they’re a better option surely.”
“Not much forensics under a train. Shit. Where’s the truck?”
Blair looked blankly at the road ahead. The bus which had been blocking their view had pulled into the last residential street and now there was nothing ahead of them but the rail yard in the distance.
“They must have turned,” Jim muttered.
“Back there,” Blair said.
There was a narrow back access between two blocks of buildings. The men in the van must have known the area, because after squeezing through, losing only small amounts of paint, Jim found himself on some waste ground used as a parking lot. The van was there; the men were not. Ahead, through prickly looking undergrowth, a rudimentary track led in the general direction (see, Blair thought, he did have some navigation instincts) of the railroad. It wasn’t necessary to be a sentinel now to hear the voices, or the rumble of a train heading in their direction.
Jim was already pushing down the track, apparently impervious to thorns and sharp branches. Wishing for a machete, Blair followed him, brambles penetrating his sleeves with ease and twigs whipped back from Jim’s passing trying to put his eyes out. He was not panting too hard to hear the shout of triumph from one of the men, the sound of the train approaching, and rising even through that thunderous rattle a high pitched terrible wailing, abruptly cut off.
He ran into Jim’s back, saw beyond Jim two scared-looking men with their hands raised, heard Jim identify himself with the usual warnings. In spite of his preference not to see this, he joined Jim at the fence and looked down towards the track – where there was absolutely no sign of carnage whatsoever. There was a bit of debris, but not enough.
“What the… ” Jim muttered, seeing the same, though presumably more intensely.
“It couldn’t have derailed a train!” one of the men blurted, still shaking at the sight of Jim’s gun – or possibly the deadly look on Jim’s face.
“We know it was a stupid thing to do,” the other added.
“I just wanted the damn things obliterated,” went on the shaky one. “You wouldn’t believe the trouble I’ve had. My girlfriend, my apartment, hell I only practised on about five occasions and every time I had some disaster. I think they were haunted.”
Blair peered at the track again. Could some supernatural force have emitted that appalling dying wail?
Jim was also looking, with all the benefits of sentinel sight.
“Tartan,” he said after a moment. “Crushed pipes?”
“I always wanted to learn to play the bagpipes,” the man confirmed. “But my girlfriend’s more important. When I tell her what I did with them, I think we’ll have a new start!”
Bagpipes! Blair wasn’t sure whether to be more infuriated with the idiots who thought of disposing of them under a train or Jim for misinterpreting the situation so spectacularly. Jim, however, seemed inclined to be amused. With a few severe warnings about throwing anything of any sort onto the tracks, and some entirely misplaced advice about relationships, he sent the men on their way.
“At least no-one’s come to any harm, Chief,” he said as they followed the men back to the vehicles.
“No harm!” Blair began to list his bitten tongue, his bruised elbow, the gouges from thorns and a few other bits of damage he’d hardly noticed in the excitement of the chase.
Jim, adding insult to injury, did make a slightly sympathetic noise, but only around the remains of his megaburger. He had removed it from his pocket, along with some (probably more nutritious) fluff, and was munching contentedly.
It would have been an ideal moment for a piped lament.