Authors: Gordon A. Kessler
Tags: #Action, #Adventure, #Thriller
Whirly Bird, Snow Bird or Dead Bird?
:35 PM MST, Heading west from Denver International Airport, gaining altitude
The chatter from the helicopter leasing facility, then the Denver control tower, seemed endless and very annoying. After reporting the Jetranger’s compass and GPS malfunctioning, I switched the helicopter’s radio off.
turned it back on and synced her iPhone with it. She began bopping to her favorite music. Not necessarily appropriate at the moment to me, still, I enjoyed glancing at her on occasion as she sang along to the lyrics of “Call Me, Maybe” a few too many times. She had a lovely voice, and it lifted my spirits some watching the beautiful woman enjoying herself — especially when she’d throw me a coy but sexy smile. She had a look that would melt steel and harden men’s flesh in a glance.
We followed Interstate 70 most of the way west. About sixty miles out, we found a little turbulence
along with some snow and ice while ascending the Continental Divide in the last few miles of the east slope of the Rockies near Loveland Pass. With the rotor collecting the frozen moisture along its airfoil and the added weight due to icing over the entire aircraft, the Jetranger engine seemed sluggish. It was working hard as we finally made 12,500 feet. We scraped over the saddle between peaks above the Eisenhower Tunnel, and to the western slope of the continent. And that’s where we hit the monstrous front, nose down.
We descended to 11,000 feet and found a less than smooth ride between there and 11,500, while trying to avoid the reported 100 mph
, gusty surface winds, heavy snow and ice. Still, fighting the sporadic fifty mph crosswind was a battle even in the powerful Bell helicopter, and I had to stay attentive to the collective lever to my left side and especially the cyclic stick between my knees to keep us on course and off the mountain.
Rillie had turned off her music, and although
white-knuckled on the sides of the copilot seat to my left, she was taking the rough flight rather well. My own knuckles were like ivory bones from my grip on the cyclic control stick. With the tunes off, Rillie turned out to be a pretty good navigator, eyeing the map and the reportedly erroneous GPS while ensuring we stayed off the mountain slopes. With a complete whiteout, we couldn’t see the ground, let alone a wall of granite that we might be flying headlong into at 150 mph.
When the yellow strobes of Colorado State Highway trucks appeared below, I
checked the radio just in case there might be any distress calls — as if we could possibly do any more than observe in a blizzard like this. It would be nearly impossible to set down, even if there was a safe place to do it. Highway crews in the snow-bladed trucks were trying to clear the interstate just outside the Eisenhower Tunnel. What little progress they made might give them a small jump on the huge job they’d be facing once the enormous storm finally blew over.
Not hearing radio chatter of any kind, we proceeded toward the railroad yards.
“Doc told me a lot about you, you know,” Rillie said. “We spent a bunch of lonely nights out there, just him and me pulling rolling stock through the mountains. About all you can do is talk or sleep when you’re watching that ol’ ribbon rail. He’d say, ‘
did that — it was always about
. I kinda started feeling as if we were family.”
Something about what she was saying bothered me, but I didn’t know what. “Doc hasn’t been much for keeping family secrets. He’s
extremely open about everything. He’ll tell you if you’ve got a booger on your nose in front of the Queen, or how many stitches they gave him in his hemorrhoid operation.”
Rillie agreed. “That’s Doc, all right. A fart is
a fart and an asshole is an asshole. That’s what makes him the most enemies.” She raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, I know all about your military life and how you ended up in prison. I even know how you got out and —”
“And what color of underwear I prefer — I know. I’m sure he told you everything.”
The chit-chat continued, and I listened carefully to every word Rillie said, analyzing her emotions, her sincerity, trying to figure out this young woman who apparently had a fling with my now
agenarian father, thirty years her senior.
In another twenty-five
miles, the snow had let up some. Rillie guided me north, and we found the bleary train yard and office lights of Slaughterhouse Yards below.
The yard tracks were surprisingly clear, and two locomotives worked, shoving freight cars, sorting them into several tracks loaded with strings of more train cars.
Mindful of overhead power lines and a handful of snow-covered vehicles, I brought our Bell helicopter in slowly, fighting the blustery snowstorm. We landed about twenty yards out from the well-lit yard office entrance, and I cut the engine.
The wind blasted icy snow in our faces as soon as we opened the chopper doors. We ran to the office
door, the angry blizzard like a grizzly bear growling at our heels.
As soon as we pushed through the doorway, we ran into a fireplug of a man wearing
an extremely angry scowl.
Rillie whispers in my ear from behind, “Shit. It’s Officer Dye, the railroad dick. Whatever you do, don’t say anything about his height or circus relatives.”
“Hmm,” I say and smile at him, preparing to bid him hello.
“You must be the asshole’s son,” are the first words out of the five-by-five man’s mouth.
That’s strike one and two for him.
He gets a strike for not liking my dad, and, since you’re an enemy of mine if you’re an enemy of my father, he gets a second strike, as well. I’m sure in the next second he’ll fan out, and fists will fly.
“So you’re Dead Dick?” I ask him.
“The circus train must be in town.”
His eyes are wide, his teeth bared. “Officer
R. Yule Dye, to you.”
I give him an
incredulous frown. “How cute. Was that your carney midget father’s brainstorm or your mother’s idea, the bearded lady? And what’s the ‘R’ for —
From behind, Rillie says, “Oh, shit!”
I guessed right about flying fists. He comes up with a pretty fair uppercut. His quickness catches me off guard.
I step back but run into Rillie before I’m far enough to avoid the full blow. His knuckles catch the edge of my chin, and it hurts like hell.
He follows with a roundhouse left. The guy is good. His meaty paw is large for his height. His fist glances off my bicep as I block, but it catches me in the ribs. That punch puts stars before my eyes.
I return with a snap-kick to his groin, but he’s ready. He twists to the side, blocking with his own thigh.
Time to regroup.
I’m thinking I’d like to push off the outside door and fly at him, but Rillie is still behind me. I chide myself for being unprepared as I step backward again, pushing Rillie into the closed entryway.
I can’t help but admire this railroad bull. He’s tough, and he doesn’t jaw-jack about it, he just acts. Still, he doesn’t like Doc.
“You’d better back off,” I tell Dye. “Or you’ll regret it for the rest of a
Out of the side of my mouth, I tell Rillie in a low voice, “When I tell you, shove me as hard as you can.”
I feel Rillie’s foot on my butt after I turn back to the little man. I’m not giving her more than a foot of room, so I’m sure she must be as limber as a circus contortionist — that’s a titillating thought. But the image that pops into my head is distracting in a particularly unpalatable way; Rillie, the beautiful rubber girl, standing between the detective’s midget father and his bearded-lady mother. That mental picture I don’t need right now.
“Threatening an officer of the law?” Dye grumbles.
I answer, “Let’s put it this way, you’ll never sucker punch me again. I gave you two strikes.” I don’t tell him that he got the strikes for disliking my father and not for punching me twice. “One more swing and I’m up to bat.”
Without hesitation, he comes at me like some kind of ninja hamster. I’ve never faced anyone so fast. And his short but powerful punches are real whoppers.
This time, I’m busy blocking, his fists and feet flying at me. Hamster, hell, he’s like an octopus armed with rotor tillers.
“Now!” I yell out, and Rillie answers with one hell of a shove.
I’d underestimated Rillie’s strength, as well. I’m vaulted inside the railroad dick’s punches so hard, I bowl him over and to the floor. I’m on top of him in an instant. Standing little chance wrestling my thick-muscled adversary, I somersault off him, back onto my feet on the other side and then give a smile to the four other office workers at their desks ogling back at me.
When I turn toward him, he stands, and I give him a snap-kick to the face. I don’t wish to kill this man and end up back in prison, so I ensure my effort doesn’t strike him in the bridge of the nose. My toe lands squarely on his cheek, and I snap it back and return it into his chest, then again into his gut and a fourth kick into his groin — all within two seconds.
As he collapses to the floor, Rillie picks up a three-foot pipe wrench leaning against the wall, and she steps up behind him.
Dye is somehow able to raise his head, preparing to get to his feet, but Rillie rears
back the long steel tool and whacks him on top of the brain cage.
I cringe. That blow alone could have killed a
man. But this guy’s about as
as a three-peckered billy goat—and every bit as tenacious. He’s shaking the blow off, his eyes fluttering.
I point at him and order, “Stay down!”
He’s putting his feet underneath himself to stand when Rillie swings the big adjustable plumber’s wrench a second time.
Stepping in Chicken Schmidt
I frowned at her as Officer R. Yule Dye’s face hit the floor. “Damn, Rillie, don’t kill him.”
a hell of a lot more to kill this bastard,” she answered. “A hobo worked him over with a buggy bar for a full thirty seconds last year. Got the whole incident on one of the yard cameras. They counted twenty hits. Dye came back at the dumb tramp, broke his neck and threw him in front of a moving box car.” She worked her jaw muscles as she stood over him. “And he hates your dad. He and Doc mix like piss and gear grease.”
because someone didn’t get along with my father, maybe even hated him, didn’t mean they were a bad person — just maybe as bullheaded as he is.
A voice from behind me shouted, “Stop!”
I turned to look down the barrel of a 9mm Glock in the hand of a sandy-haired man of about forty.
“Oh, put the gun down, Jones,” Rillie said. “You saw him. He swung first. He could have killed E Z.”
I realized who the guy was by a few things my father had told me about the place. This man was the trainmaster and part owner of the Colorado Western Express short-line railroad,
eyes got big, now. “Doc Knight’s son? Well, well, well.”
Those were not
”. My father had definitely made an impression here at Slaughterhouse.
Big Deal Jones asked, “What the hell you doing bringing this asshole here, Rillie?”
“He brought me,” Rillie said. “He needs information.”
“Doc Knight’s son won’t get shit here,” Big Deal said.
I told him, “I’ve already gotten shit here. And considering your breath, I’d guess that’s all you’ll give me.”
he two women and two men sitting behind computers at their desks still gazed at me, astonished.
One of the office pogues was a small bald man of about fifty. He left his desk and stepped up to Jones from behind.
After shoving a black dry-erase marker into Big Deal’s side, the clerk said, “Go ahead and give me a reason to use this,
.” His voice was deep but oddly feminine.
It must have been the blizzard. The entire yard office seemed to have gone stir crazy while waiting out the storm. But the small man’s bluff worked.
Big Deal Jones opened his gun hand and raised the other. He asked
man, “Where’d you get the gun?”
Before he answered, I stepped up quickly and took the firearm away from Jones.
My little ally began a loud cackle that got incredibly annoying after about three seconds. He swiped Big Deal Jones across his top lip with the strong-smelling marker, and then slipped it into Jones’ shirt pocket, making a wide, black line from his shoulder down his otherwise spotless, white shirt.
“From my pen cup,” the brave little guy
three office workers chuckled.
I put Big Deal’s handgun under my belt. “I’ll hold onto this until the
settles down some.”
“I’m the train order clerk and operator, Chic Schmidt,” the small, thin man said. “Friends just call me Chic.”
“Chickadee Schmidt,” Jones said. “Chicken Shit, that’s what
“Like I say,” Chic answered, and held his hand out. “Friends call me Chic. This SOB is the trainmaster, Dill Jones — likes to be called
— and always talks in third person. He’s more like a
“Big Deal’s gonna fire you someday, you little transvestite. If Big Deal gets a friendly witness in here, your union can’t say shit.”
“See what I mean?” Chic said, ignoring him. “I’m building a discrimination case against the dumb bastard, and he doesn’t give a damn. That’s how smart he is, Mr. Knight. When I get ready, I’m going to sue his ass and go to Trinidad to finish my sex change with the
“Sounds like a man with a plan. But it’s
Knight, not ‘
,” I said and shook Chic’s proffered hand. “Just
kickin’ there, E Z,” Chic said. “Ol’ Dye’s gonna seriously hate your guts when he comes to and sees all those bruises on his face. For an ugly guy, he sure thinks he’s pretty — he’ll flex and pose at a water puddle.”
“I need some information,” I told Chic. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Big Deal interrupted, “I’m the damn trainmaster. You ask questions here, you ask me.”
Chic offered us a couple of seats next to his desk, still ignoring Big Deal. He sat down and said, “So,
lookin’ for Doc, I’ll bet.” He crossed his legs tight and rubbed his chin.
I never understood how some guys could do that — put one thigh over the other while sitting up. I mean; when I cross my legs, the best I can do
is put one shin over the other knee — and I’m pretty flexible. If I even thought of crossing my legs like Chic’s, they’d hear my nuts crack in Nebraska. But I remembered Big Deal called him a
and even Chic said something about
finishing his sex change
. I didn’t want to think about what might be going on under his pants.
This place was
truly starting to creep me out.
I asked, “Yeah, what do you know?”
“I’m the last one to speak with Doc and Specks. Doc radioed in their location about an hour before Specks gave the last transmission. Doc sounded normal to me. Said the snow had started heavy and they were pushing it east from Rangely. Then Specks came on fifty minutes later and said Doc got a cell phone call and seemed to have gone nuts. He was talking about dog catching another train. Haven’t heard a thing from either one, since. That was seven days ago.”
Chick said, “
Generally, it’s when a fresh train crew, usually an engineer and conductor, go out to relieve another crew that’s DOL — dead on the law. That means they’ve exceeded their Federally-allowed hours of service, and they can’t work any longer or go any farther operating any Federally-monitor equipment until they’ve rested according to Federal guidelines — law.”
“Have any ideas
where they could be?”
“Not a one. I do know they sure got a ton of work to do. That weather set in faster than anybody’d expected,
and then a second front hit and stalled out on top of everything west to Salt Lake City. We’ve got five stranded trains between here and Gold Miner’s Bend; two are loaded ore trains and two loaded mixed manifest.”
“One of the stranded ore trains is the
Mother Lode Express
“Yeah.” Chic nodded. “And that’s the one Specks said Doc wanted to dog catch.”
This whole thing bothered me. I was overlooking something, or pertinent information was passing me by. I scanned the room to find an impetus to push my analytical mind out of the rut — out of the paradigm box — to key my imagination.
I gazed a
t the framed photos on the wall; pictures of old railroaders, of locomotives, of freight cars.
“What’s the fifth train?”
“It’s just a local. Goes from Rangely to a small ski resort community named Fool’s Rush. Mostly carries dry goods and supplies, especially during ski season — when the trucks have a hard time gettin’ through.”
“Anything unusual happen around here lately — out of the ordinary?” My gaze landed on the photo of a large tanker freight car. “Derailments? Missing
“Nothing,” Big Deal interrupted, again. “What are you, some kind of detective? You’re not the police. You’re an ex-con.” He glanced at Chic. “Don’t answer any more of his questions.”
Chic acted as though he didn’t hear him — seeming to have an epiphany as he glanced at the same wall-hanging photo I was viewing. “The missing cars!”
“Missing freight cars?” I asked.
“Shut up!” Big Deal said, “This man’s a criminal. He’s up to no good, and so’s his father.”
“Yes,” Chic said. “We lose freight cars all the time. Shit happens. Cars get left on sidings by mistake, get switched into industry tracks that they’re not supposed to go to. Their numbers get mixed up. Cars get lost all the time. But they usually turn up sooner more often than later.”
“So, what’s so unusual?”
“These missing cars are loaded with hazmat.”
“Why’s that different,” I asked.
“Hazmat? All railroad movement is regulated by the government, but hazardous material is especially scrutinized due to broader safety concerns. It won’t be but the blink of an eye after this blizzard before you see the Feds running around here thick as flies at a dead possum’s funeral. You just don’t lose hazmat cars — not even for a minute.”
“So what sense does that and dog-catching a copper ore train make?”
“Doesn’t make any sense. We can’t get to any of those trains in this kind of weather. In emergencies like these, we just outlaw ‘em. You know, try to sneak the train crews in no matter what their hours-of-service are — don’t matter twelve hours or twelve days. The Feds generally look the other way. All those trains and even Ol’ Windy are way over their time already — went
dead on the law
days ago. We don’t even know where
“You can’t find the ore train?”
“Nope. Won’t talk to us, no GPS on the damn thing, yet. Don’t have a clue where she is. With half our signals and comm lines out as well as dual control switches all the way from the Colorado line in, we can’t tell where the hell they are until they report in or someone finds them by air. The storm’s too strong for air travel, right now. Weather service doesn’t expect any change for the better for at least another twenty-four hours. The state and the National Guard won’t send their people out in that direction until after that.”
“I’ll fly out now and report back what I find.”
fly out there,” Rillie said and took my arm.
Chic said, “You must be
an exceptionally talented pilot or extremely crazy.” He smiled. “I’m guessing a little of both.”
Big Deal was back. He glanced at the man still lying unconscious in the middle of the floor, nose bleeding and a knot swelling up on the back of his head. “You two aren’t going anywhere. You’ve assaulted an officer of the law.”
I found a half-full mug of cold coffee on Chic’s desk and stepped over to the railroad dick. “That should be up to Officer Dye.” I threw the coffee on the side of his face, and he instantly reacted, squinting, raising his head and trying to shake off the cobwebs.
I knelt beside him. “You want us arrested, Dye?”
The stocky man sat up and shook his head again. He frowned and rubbed his crown.
I was pretty sure he’d be the type who hadn’t had an ass-whipping since sixth grade — he’d rather get even in a less public way. I told him, “We won’t say anything if you
His focus seemed to
return. If his eyes could’ve burned a hole through me, I would have been smoking like a smudge pot.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want them held. I’m not arresting them.” He turned to Big Deal. “And you’re going to keep your mouth shut, or I’ll tell everybody about Sadie being you
r own aunt.”
Rillie held her mouth with both hands, but a laugh pushed through.
Chic blurted out, “Then it’s true? The
Dill Jones is married to his own aunt?”
Big Deal was stifled, his jaw dropping, wanting to speak, but his brain not making a connection.
I was sure my eyes were as big as silver dollars. “Ho-lee shit,” I said under my breath. I was really wanting to get out of this madhouse as quickly as my feet and the rotary wings outside would let me. But I needed more information.
“I’ll catch up with you later, Knight,” Officer Dye grunted. He rolled to his side and tried to find his feet. The other man and two women who’d kept out of the way during our little battle went to Dye to help him. He pushed them away, stumbled, then gave in and welcomed their assistance. They ushered him to a nearby chair.
I smiled at him and went back to Rillie at Chic’s desk.
Big Deal said, “Not
good enough for Big Deal. Big Deal’s had enough. Big Deal was a Golden Gloves boxer, a college champion wrestler and pitcher. Dye’s nothing compared to Big Deal.”
“Strike two,” I told him. Strike one was pulling the gun on me.
Fast and quick are two very different things to me. Fast takes stamina; quick is near impossible speed in short bursts. I’d been told I’m both.