“End of the Line” [excerpt] by Bert and Dolores Hitchens

Like a silver eel the streamliner rose from the flats of the dusky desert, skirting the toes of the wrinkled hills, sweeping upward into the clear green twilight in the pass. Thunder followed it under the ground and a wind rushed outward at its passing. Lizards and cactus owls and a few jackrabbits froze at the vast vibration and waited for catastrophe to follow. In the cab the engineer looked at his watch. In less than two hours they should be in Los Angeles.

Ahead lay Lobo Tunnel.

At this moment in the life of the train a porter carrying a wet towel was running in one of the corridors. A conductor stood biting his lips, knuckles lifted to rap at a compartment door. Against a window a man crouched peering at his hands, horror-stricken, as if his world had just gone mad. For these Lobo Tunnel was to mean reprieve, and oblivion, and opportunity.

At the last instant, as the train swept into the tunnel entrance, the engineer stiffened, his lips parted, and he reached for the brakes. It was too late.

On sixty-four wheels Death roared into Lobo Tunnel, and made a noise that men would hear for years.

[. . .]

The office of the Special Agent on the eighth floor gave a first impression of inhospitable bareness in spite of an adequate number of furnishings. There were seven desks against the walls, including the one used exclusively by Pete, the office man, an equal number of chairs, a dictating machine, filing cabinets, a hat-and-coat rack, a washbasin and drinking fountain, not to mention the bulletin boards. At eye level above the desks had been pinned a great array of FBI and local police bulletins, snapshots of some of the recent crooks caught by the railroad cops, a row of pigeonholes, calendars, and—off by itself—a large portrait of the gentleman who had been president of the railroad about 1910. How he’d got there was a puzzle; but he stayed simply because nobody bothered to take him down. Pete thought the picture probably covered a hole in the plaster.

Part of the barren effect was physical in origin, Pete thought, and emerged from the room itself, the large area of stark gray composition floor and the excessive height of the ceiling. High ceilings were usual in old buildings but this one seemed to dwarf the other dimensions of the room. It was dim up there, far away. The only time the upper gloom seemed fully dispelled was at high noon in mid-summer, when the sun shone straight down the big air well which opened up the center of the building. The rest of the year the shaded, low-hanging bulbs didn’t touch it. Pete felt it hanging over his head all the time.

The second cause was psychic, in Pete’s opinion, a miasma created by trouble and crime. It was in the atmosphere, this stew of theft and fire, breaking into boxcars, trespassing, switch-tamperings, lost and stolen luggage, disappearing people, on down to the not insignificant damages inflicted by juveniles with bee-bee guns and slingshots and stones. Add to this the impersonal comings and goings all day, traffic like that of a waiting room or a café—the only people who remained in the place continuously were Ryerson, the Chief, and Pete. And Pete had the outer office almost always to himself.

Ryerson’s inner sanctum was walled off in one corner, a partition made of plywood paneling, stained dark, with glass above so that Ryerson could keep an eye on the whole place when he wanted to.

On this particular morning Pete was taking the cover off his typewriter when Ryerson went through on his way to his desk. “Hello, Pete.”

“Morning, Mr. Ryerson.” Pete unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and took out the stenotype machine. He was a slim, sandy man with the build of a runner and long, nervous hands. Ryerson went into the inner office, put his hat on the rack, walked to his desk and stood there a couple of minutes as if thinking, then came back to the inner doorway. A couple of investigators came in and flopped down at desks; Ryerson nodded to them but his gaze was for Pete.

Ryerson was a bear of a man, over six feet; and if build and muscle were an indication of his fitness for a job he should have been swinging a sledge hammer in the repair shops on Alameda. “Will you bring me the file on the Lobo Tunnel wreck?” he said to Pete. One of the investigators lifted his eyes from the pad of report blanks and gave Ryerson a curious glance. Ryerson half turned to go back to his desk, then added: “And I want to see Farrel and Saunders when they get here.”

“Now, that’s a pair,” Pete said. Ryerson shut his door. Pete went to the files and squatted on his heels, opened a low drawer, flipped through the folders, selected three fat ones. They were kind of dusty. When he had them out he blew on them. There were newspaper clippings among other things inside, and these were yellowed and crackling.

He took them in to Ryerson, laid them on Ryerson’s desk. “Thanks,” the Chief said.

“What’s new on this thing?”

“Parmenter.”

“What’d he do? Swim ashore?”

“They let him go.”

Pete made a ticking noise between his teeth and went out. In the outer office he met Farrel, just tossing his hat on a desk, and sent him in to Ryerson. Saunders followed in a couple of minutes. There was something new about Saunders Pete couldn’t put his finger on. He looked somehow like a kid who has just set fire to the schoolhouse.

When Farrel and Saunders were seated, Ryerson pulled the Lobo Tunnel folders towards him, flipped up the cover of the top one, said, “Farrel, do you remember the name of the conductor on the Western Shores Limited?” There was, under the casual tone, the hint that he was testing Farrel, looking for some slackness, some diminution of powers.

Farrel’s glance seemed idly speculative. “The Lobo Tunnel wreck? Wasn’t that Parmenter?”

Saunders glanced from Farrel to Ryerson. He was much younger than these other two. He was like a youngster trying to catch the conversation of old folks talking over his head.

Farrel went on, “What’s new with him? I thought the Mexicans had him salted away in Islas Marías prison.”

“He was. Apparently he’s been released.” Ryerson leaned back in his chair and the swivel protested. He looked at Saunders somewhat measuringly. “Last night Parmenter telephoned an old friend of his, a retired conductor named Wall. Wall lives in Chula Vista now, raises lemons and chickens. Wall knows the background, knew we’d wanted to talk to Parmenter for a long time. He called in here. Burns took it.”

Saunders found a trace of familiar ground; he knew who Burns was. Burns was the night sergeant in charge of the place from four-thirty to midnight. The rest of it didn’t register.

Farrel said, “Maybe Parmenter had just crossed the border. That’s where Chula Vista is, practically on the line.”

“Might be,” Ryerson agreed. “Wall says that Parmenter sounded old and sick.”

“Islas Marías is no picnic, from what I’ve heard.”

“They chewed the fat for a couple of minutes, and then Wall began to insist that Parmenter stop in and see him. Parmenter put him off, but he finally agreed to come to Wall’s house tonight.”

A suddenly knowledgeable light flickered in Farrel’s eyes; he moved a little in his chair as though already his body protested the long cramping ride to Chula Vista and back. “What can we do? We can’t pick him up, not unless there’s more on him than what we used to have.”

“That’s all there is,” Ryerson said flatly. “Just what you know. I want you and Saunders to go down there and try to get him to talk.”

Farrel didn’t seem to think this needed any answer from him. He ticked a thumbnail against the arm of the chair, turned his gaze from Ryerson out the window. Across the air well in another office a slim girl in a red dress was standing on a stool and stretching to reach something high on a cabinet. She was showing a lot of leg and Farrel looked it over.

Saunders cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Mr. Ryerson, but when did this wreck happen?”

Farrel switched a glance at him. Ryerson said, “Six years ago. Six years, two months and some-odd days.”

Saunders smiled, a little blankly. “Isn’t it a hell of a long time—” Under their attention he felt the smile dying on his face. But Ryerson seemed patient, Farrel’s glance was almost kindly. “I mean, with the press of all the new stuff, and everything . . .” What he meant was that the office was perpetually understaffed for the amount of work to be done. Ryerson was always howling for more investigators.

Farrel shifted his legs, put an elbow on the desk, facing Saunders. He spoke without emphasis. “To a cinder bull no train wreck’s ever too old until he knows who or what caused it. There’s no closed file to drop it into, no key to lock it up with. It’s always right up there with the freshest crap in the hopper.”

“I see,” Saunders said uncertainly.

Ryerson shuffled the papers in the folder. He wasn’t looking at Farrel but he seemed to be thinking about him, reserving some judgment, some decision on which he’d formerly made up his mind.


Excerpted from End of the Line by Bert and Dolores Hitchens, reprinted by Stark House Press / Black Gat Books.

BGB17-cover-End-Line-TPS


Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens, better known to mystery fans as Dolores Hitchens, was born December 25, 1907 in San Antonio, Texas. She married Beverley S. Olsen, a radio operator on a merchant vessel, around 1934. Beginning in 1938, Dolores wrote a series of mysteries as D. B. Olsen. It is not known whether she divorced Olsen or was widowed, but she was re-married to Hubert A. Hitchens by the early 1940s. After her marriage to Bert—who was a railway detective—they collaborated on a series of five railroad mysteries from 1957 to 1964. Dolores also wrote an excellent group of standalone mysteries, including Fool’s Gold which was filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as Band of Outsiders in 1964, as well as the critically applauded Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander. She passed away on August 1, 1973 in Orange County, California, followed by Hubert in Riverside County in 1979.


Cover by Barye Phillips, altered by Cartoonize.

 

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