Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Two – The Face of Death

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Roy was pounding on the door of the second compartment down when he realized the Fairchilds had followed him. He caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye as they approached and he shook his head. “What do you two think you’re doing?”

“If you’re a railway inspector I think you’d know,” Brandon said. “Nosiness is a part of life on a train.”

Any rejoinder Roy wanted to make was cut off when the compartment door popped open and a worried father peered out, his family in a worried huddle behind him on one of the compartment’s couches. “What’s going on?” The man asked. “Who are you?”

“Roy Harper, Packard Railway Detectives,” Roy said, pointing towards the medallion he was wearing. “Did you hear a scream just now?”

The father nodded as his wife pointed to the wall rearward and said, “It sounded like it came from there.”

“Thank you,” Roy said. “Please stay in your compartment for now. I’ll send the conductor by when we’ve determined everything’s all right.”

He turned and headed towards the next compartment, looking over his shoulder at his erstwhile compartment mates. “I don’t suppose you’ll remain in your compartment as well?”

“Is that an order, Inspector?” Brandon’s sister asked.

“No, Miss Fairchild-”

“Cassandra, please.”

That took Roy a bit aback, he’d heard the Avaloni were sticklers for propriety with names and stations. Maybe there was some nuance to it that Columbia had forgotten. “It’s not an order, Miss Cassandra,” he said, “just a strong suggestion. And the title is Detective. The Creighton Railway Inspectors don’t like us getting confused, although as I see it that would help their business.”

The siblings shared an unreadable look, the kind close knit families tended to use when they needed to communicate some simple thought quickly, without wasting time on things like words. “I’m aware this is your duty,” Brandon said gently, “but perhaps we could be of some assistance. We’re no strangers to trouble on the sky train.”

“I’m sure you’re capable of taking care of yourself,” Roy said, glancing at the saber in Brandon’s belt subconsciously, “but the Packards are trained and competent to protect others and the train itself when it’s airborn. So I’d appreciate it if you’d return to your compartment. The last thing I want is a druid knocking us out of the coalstoking sky.”

He cut off Brandon’s attempt at answering by banging on the next door down the corridor. To his annoyance the Fairchilds remained in the passage but he wasn’t willing to escalate the matter. Not only wouldn’t it help him discover the source of the scream they’d heard, he actively wanted to avoid dealing with druids as much as possible. Not just because it was a healthy lifestyle – he had little patience for such things in his day to day – but because he’d spent enough time in the last week doing just that and he was ready for a break.

The compartment door opened before his thoughts could run further down that rabbit hole, revealing an ashen faced boy of maybe thirteen years. His stringy brown hair hung nearly to his shoulders in disheveled locks. He was dressed in a rumpled brown shirt with no collar over ill fitting denim pants held up by worn red suspenders. Roy immediately recognized him, not personally but for what he was. The other two children in the compartment wore equally rough clothing and looked about the same age. The boy looked up at Roy, licked his lips and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Roy removed his hat and said, “Everything all right in there, son? The neighbors said they heard screaming.”

The boy gestured behind him where the other two, both girls in simple, faded dresses, clung to each other. One had short black hair and a tear stained face, the other a stringy redhead with an apologetic expression. “Sorry, sir,” the redhead said. “We think Olivia had a nightmare. She’s… she’s new.”

“What does that-” Roy put a hand in Brandon’s chest and pushed him another step back into the passage. Once both hand and man were out of sight of the girls, Roy pointed emphatically back up the passage towards their compartment.

“Where’s your Hearth Keeper, son?” Roy asked, trying his best to tune out the whispered conversation in the hall behind him.

“She’s in the second public car,” the boy said. “She was going to say the evening cant.”

“Couple of hours late for that,” Roy muttered. Then returned his attention to the children. “But you don’t see anything wrong with the young miss?”

The dark haired girl – Olivia – made an effort to pull herself together. Her lips quivered a bit but she managed to point to the seat across from her and say, “I saw it. There was a dead man in that seat.”

The redhead put a hand on her head, ducking it down a bit. “I’m sorry, sir. Her parents… were in a fire, two months ago. She’s had nightmares for-”

“But he was stabbed!” Olivia wailed. “I don’t know who he was, but it wasn’t Ma or Pa or…” the girl’s voice slipped from coherence into meaningless grief.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said. “She’s not-”

“I understand, son.” Roy donned his hat and stepped out of the doorway. “Do you want me to fetch the Hearth Keeper for you?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Harper?”

Roy took a deep breath and marshaled his patience. At moments like this the whisper of fire running through the body of the train seemed to grow to a shout, telling him the simplest way to solve his problems was to burn them all away. But the role of magic was to listen to him, not the other way around. “What is it, Miss Cassandra?”

“Could I speak to Miss Olivia? There’s a chance she didn’t dream what she saw.”

“I didn’t!” The girl exclaimed, the vote of confidence restoring enough self control to make her coherent again.

There was definitely something out of true in that compartment, whether the young girl was having nightmares about her parents or seeing visions of stranger things, and it was technically Roy’s responsibility to sort it out, at least to the point where he could determine if it was a danger to the train or its passengers. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do but he kept his Packard license for a reason and until he was ready to give it up there wasn’t much choice in the matter. “We’ll go and speak to the Hearth Keeper, then. What’s your name, son?”

The boy started a bit, apparently not expecting to be called on. “Clark, sir.”

“All right, Clark.” He pulled the aluminum medallion off his neck and dropped it into the boy’s hand. “I want you to hold on to that. If anyone comes to your door and checks on you, show them that and tell them I gave it to you while I went to get your Hearth Keeper. All right?”

Clark’s eyes practically bulged out of his head. “Don’t you need this to fly, sir?”

“You can’t fly just by holding a chunk of aluminum, son,” Roy said with a laugh. “You need a lot more of it than that, plus a furnace of fire to empower it. So don’t go getting ideas. Just hang on to that, and know the Packards are looking out for you. We’ll be right back.”

The door swung closed behind him as he started towards the back of the train. The footsteps of the Fairchild siblings fell in behind him. “That was kind of you,” Cassandra said. “They’re all quite lonely and the gift helped. Who are they?”

“Orphans.” Roy waved a hand to encompass the train. “It’s not uncommon for rail lines to offer open space on trains to orphanages, who can send their older children along the route in an attempt to find them living situations. Unfortunately out here there’s always a disaster or plague or Sanna raid or rogue elemental to generate a new crop of kids like them, and we can’t do much but try and place the more independent ones quickly.”

Roy opened the door to the railcar, suspending the conversation as the three of them crossed the wooden boards between the cars. The wind of their thirty mile an hour passage, whistling through the enchanted tin safety mesh, combined with the creaking of the bronze links holding the boards in place and the cars together, made any attempt to talk futile. Only once they were safely inside the first public car, picking their way through the benches, did Brandon speak again.

“I’m surprised I never noticed one of these groups before.”

“We don’t advertise they’re here,” Roy said, giving a meaningful look around the car. Most people ignored them, which was the polite thing to do, but he still didn’t want to bring attention to the large group of children with only two supervisors onboard. “Although the Packards don’t really have a hand in these groups.”

“You’re a Packard, can’t you at least interview one of them?” Brandon asked, sounding skeptical.

“On the strength of Miss Cassandra’s request? No. Besides, I’d prefer not to step on the toes of their caretakers.” He glanced around the train car but didn’t see anyone under the age of fifteen that wasn’t with a family. He still dropped his tone a couple of degrees. “Besides, those kids have been through enough, they don’t need strangers inserting themselves into their lives willy nilly.”

“Willy nilly?” Cassandra asked.

“Yes. Lacksidaisical.”

“Of course.”

The Fairchilds finally stopped asking questions, for which Roy was grateful. They crossed the rest of the car and into the next in silence.

The occupants of the next car all stared at them as they entered, which was odd but not as odd as the way everyone was packed into the back of the seating benches, with four or even five young children crammed into benches meant for two. A middle aged woman in the red and brown robes of the Hearth Keepers was on the left hand side, the youngest children clinging to her. On the right, near the middle of the compartment, was a man about the same age in the gray and blue of the Storm Watch. He was frantically waving them away, eyes roaming through an area halfway between him and the front of the car.

A semitransparent man sat on a bench in that area, his ghostly innards piled around his feet, a bitter expression on his face. When Roy met his eyes the specter’s face morphed into a chilling smile. “Lieutenant Harper.” The ghost’s whisper seemed to reach every corner of the car. “We meet again.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter One – Private Compartment

Brandon woke to the sound of a polite, forceful knock at the door of his compartment. The sound of muffled voices in the passage of the train car were too indistinct to make out in its entirety but he picked up the voice of the conductor saying, “very full,” “no vacancies” and “very personable.” A second voice replied but the only thing Brandon caught was “sleep.”

Brandon gently moved his sister’s head off of his shoulder, taking care not to interrupt her rest, and propped her in the corner of the compartment’s north couch then he got to his feet with equal care. After years traveling the Columbian West he was as used to standing on a flying train as stable ground. The train felt momentarily odd under his feet, not bucking and swaying, which meant they must have come to a station while he was sleeping.

The conductor greeted him with his customary attempt at a cheerful smile, the round man’s salt and pepper beard splitting into an unpleasant display of teeth and gums. “Mr. Fairchild, I hope you’re having a pleasant evening.”

“Pleasant enough, sir. May I ask where we’re grounded?”

“Sanford’s Run,” the conductor replied. “I was hoping to talk to you about your compartment.”

“You’d like us to share.” Brandon didn’t phrase it as a question. In fact it was something they’d been asked to do several times while crossing the West.

The conductor stepped to one side, revealing a shortish man in a well tailored but weathered brown suit and a battered derby hat with a set of heavy leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “This gentleman transferred to this line on his way to Hardwick station and asked for a private compartment, but I’m afraid they’re all occupied.”

“And we’re two in a compartment that seats four,” Brandon said.

“If you don’t want to share I can easily close my eyes in a public car,” the newcomer said. “It’s barely eight hours to Hardwick, I can find a hotel there to catch up on my sleep.”

“Not at all necessary,” Brandon said, reaching back to open the door to the compartment. “Happy to share. I’m Brandon Fairchild.”

“Roy Harper.” He followed just behind Brandon, setting his battered saddlebags on the compartment’s southern couch across from Cassandra. Harper’s glance fell on her and a glint of sharp interest appeared in his eyes. He swiveled to study Brandon, then back to Cassie. “Your sister?”

It wasn’t hard to make that connection, to be honest. They had the same round face, though she wore it better than he did, and the same straight, dirty blonde hair, and they were only three years apart in age. But Brandon let that fact pass, only saying, “So she is.”

The sharp look vanished and Harper grunted. “You don’t sound like any Columbian I’ve met,” he said as he settled onto the other couch. “You two from Avalon? Maybe somewhere on the Continent?”

“We’re Avaloni.” Brandon sat as well. “We’ve been taking the sights of your lovely country for some time now.”

Harper nodded lazily. “Then you don’t need me to tell you to watch your back. The West isn’t very hospitable to anyone, I’m afraid.”

With that Harper leaned back on the couch, pulled his hat down over his face and was asleep before the sky train lifted off ten minutes later. Brandon marveled at the accomplishment. Even after a year and a half of regular travel by sky train, falling asleep on one was a challenge for him. Harper didn’t even stir during the rough takeoff procedures.

Cassie wasn’t so lucky, starting awake as the train lurched off the ground with a deep, haunting whistle blast. She looked around, eyes bleary, but took Harper’s sudden appearance in the compartment in stride. In a soft tone she murmured, “We have a guest.”

“He came on at the last station,” Brandon said. “Seems harmless enough and he’s planning on getting off at the next station. Speaking of plans, any new insights?”

She shook her head, turning glum. “Nothing. I know we were supposed to take this train but still no idea of when we should get off.” Cassandra took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Sometimes I wonder if this trip is a waste of time.”

“Well it’s only three days back to Stillwater and the Coastal Express, if we turn around at the next station,” Brandon said in a comforting tone. “Maybe you’ll catch wind of a new tune to run down.”

But his sister wasn’t having it. “Not this train. The entire trip. In two weeks I’ll be seventeen and still chasing half heard echoes through the middle of nowhere.”

Brandon shifted uncomfortably and eyed Harper on the opposite couch. The newcomer looked like he was still asleep but Brandon pitched his voice even softer still. “No one questioned your calling at the time, Cassie. Not you, not even Father. What’s changed between now and then?”

“We left home nearly two years ago. We’ve been running around Columbia for more than a year and a half and we’re still empty handed. What have we accomplished, besides nearly getting killed half a dozen times?” Under normal circumstances Cassie could have laughed that off. Under stress her shortcomings would anger her and motivate her to set them right. But today for some reason she sounded outright despondent and it worried him.

So Brandon put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her in tight. “Cassie. You know this whole thing is just a lark for me. Almost no one gets sent out a questing these days, but you got a genuine revelation and I got a chance to get out of sleepy old Avalon and see the world. Sure, I have to see it with my least favorite sister-”

“Only sister.”

“-but everything requires some sacrifice.” He could see his teasing wasn’t having the desired effect. He adjusted to a more serious tone. “You have a chance to really accomplish something here, Cassie. The search hasn’t been easy so far but I’m sure, if you stick it out, you’ll finish quite well.”

“Making myself a spinster in the process.” It was a line of thought they’d covered often in the last six months.

Unfortunately Brandon didn’t have a single sensible reply to it. So he tucked his sister in a little closer and rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. At this point there was little left to be said on the topic for either of them.

So they sat in silence and lost themselves in the rocking of the train, tuning out questions, doubts and the presence of a total stranger as they slowly drifted off to sleep.

Only to jolt awake as a scream cut through the train car. Brandon reached up and grasped the hilt of his saber, resting on the baggage shelf overhead, and looked to the door of the compartment. To his surprise he saw Roy Harper already standing there, pulling on a pair of dueling gloves. Brandon struggled to his feet and pulled his sword from under his carpet bag still sheathed. “Hear anything, Mr. Harper?”

“Nothing,” Harper replied. “Stay in here, I’ll go and take a look.”

Brandon pulled his hip satchel off the shelf and selected an eighteen inch stick of yew from inside it and tucked it into his belt of woven roots. “Stay? Why’s that?”

“What are you planning to do if you come?” Harper asked.

“Render aid. If necessary, break up a fight or do a little of it myself.” Brandon glanced at Roy’s left side meaningfully. “What exactly are you planning to do if it comes to that?”

Harper snorted, checked the fit of his gloves and twitched his suit jacket aside just long enough to draw a black dagger from a hip sheath concealed beneath. It had the look of iron, although it was hard to be sure and with the metal’s magic killing properties Brandon was in no hurry to find out. “I can take care of myself. And more importantly, I can take care of this. It’s kind of my job.”

And he pulled a circular medallion with a star made of crisscrossing railway tracks from one pocket and dropped it around his neck before stepping out into the passage way. Brandon glanced at Cassie. “A railway inspector. I was not expecting that.”

“I admit, he doesn’t exactly fit with the others we’ve met,” she said. “Are we going to wait here?”

“Have we ever?”

But Cassie was already getting to her feet and the two of them followed Harper out into the hall.