RANDOM ACTS OF FATHERHOOD
Before the thing with the trains, or any of the talk about hidden gold or lightning rods, there had been the little woman at the employment agency. Later Mabry would suspect her act was a put-on, the crisp, professional tone as contrived as her high penciled eyebrows, or the immovable globe of hair, its shade reminding Mabry of the antique bronze he had seen on hardware store spray paint caps. But on that first visit he was simply annoyed, put off by the way she slid the pink sheet of paper across the desk without getting into why he was here, what his career aspirations were. Then tapping her chin with a brown painted fingernail as he read it, watching over the bifocals.
Mabry read the sheet, shook his head.
The woman smiled patiently. “It’s a good job. They have benefits.”
“I don’t look good in a blue vest,” Mabry said. “And giving out happy face stickers doesn’t sound challenging.”
“There are other positions. You could be a cashier or stock person.”
“I was hoping for something in management.”
The woman stared at him, then slid the pink sheet away without comment. She withdrew another from her top drawer, this one white.
“Let’s review your employment experience.” She took a pen from a set on her desk, the brass plate on which read Mrs. Walker. Aside from the phone it was the only object on the metal desk. “Describe in one sentence your primary marketable skill.”
Mabry thought about it. “Procurement.”
The pen dipped toward the paper, paused. Mrs. Walker looked up. “That’s all? Procurement?”
Mabry thought some more. “I was in trains.”
“So you were an engineer.”
Mabry shook his head. “More on the inventory side.” The pen hovered for a moment longer, then Mrs. Walker said, “Transportation Inventory Management,” writing in a script so neat it looked to Mabry like newspaper print. While she wrote Mabry looked around for an ashtray, knowing he would find none, the office so sterile it echoed.
“When was the last time you were employed?” Mrs. Walker asked.
“My last job was four years ago.”
The penciled eyebrows arched over the bifocals. “And you haven’t worked since?”
“I made a lot on that job.”
A hundred and eighteen thousand, Mabry thought. Then immediately thought of Philip, the image coming unbidden, the way it always did with that dollar figure. The boy’s face fading in his mind now, like the face on a coin that’s passed through too many fingers.
“No salary requirement defined,” Mrs. Walker said. “What about tool skills? That can also include computer proficiency, or any particular software.”
Mabry said, “I’m good with firearms.”
“I see. So you were an armed guard.”
Mabry shrugged. “I have a lot of experience in that area.”
“But… you weren’t really a guard.”
Mabry kept silent.Mrs. Walker turned the white sheet over and pushed it to the corner of her desk. She returned the pen to the marble base and straightened it. Then stared at Mabry for a long time over the bifocals.He thought the meeting was over.But Mrs. Walker said, “I may have something for you.”
The first – and only – time Mabry had gone to visit Philip after the South Boston freight job was three weeks later. Really only seeing a wedge of Philip, because Bobbi’s father had kept the chain on the apartment door. But Mabry had seen enough to know the boy’s grandparents had given him a haircut, what Mabry thought of as a white-trash cut, the way they left his blond hair long in the back but spiky on top. Trying to be contemporary but only making it up to the early eighties, probably doing the cutting themselves with the same shears the old lady used to snip coupons.
By then Mabry had already hidden the money, the amount forcing him into a distributed banking system: some in plastic bags in the apartment’s tiny freezer, some beneath a flagstone in the weed-choked backyard, a few notes tucked under a corner of carpet for spending. The chrome-plated locomotive had set him back almost a hundred bucks, but he was still in the afterglow of new money and his personal economy had not yet equalized. It wasn’t until later he would realize he would have been better off with something unrelated to trains, but that’s what the kid loved.
“For your birthday,” Mabry said, holding the toy up to the crack in the apartment door, its chrome reflecting the milky light of the hallway. Then eventually setting it on the faded hallway carpet when it became clear the grandfather wouldn’t release the chain.
He had hoped it would go better, but then Bobbi’s mother had come up to the door and started spouting off, her pale, wrinkled face hovering in the gap and using language Mabry thought unbefitting a grandmother.
Mabry left, but not before seeing the look in Philip’s eyes at the sight of the locomotive, knowing his son would be all right, understanding the amazing resilience of children.
Mabry stepped out of the taxi, double-checking the sheet Mrs. Walker had given him, the address written in her fussy lettering. He was watching his pennies now and couldn’t afford for the cab to leave if it was the wrong place. But then the sight of the property told him all he needed to know: manicured shrubs as flat as end tables, the small lawn cropped as tight as a putting green. The brown November leaves had been herded off to neighboring yards, like sheep held at bay by some invisible border shepherd. There were no potted plants or humorous lawn signs, only the house number beside the brown, windowless front door. A beige compact stood in the driveway.
Mrs. Walker answered the door, her weekend appearance similar to his visit two days before but softened, the pantsuit replaced by a brown velour jogging suit, zipped to the neck. She seated him on a plastic-covered sofa in a small living room. The opposite wall was dominated by a wide bay window with drawn curtains, as if the sunlight itself were too unpredictable a prospect to allow into the tidy room.
A moment later she returned with a glass tumbler filled with iced tea, which she placed on a coaster produced from some unseen location. She sat across from Mabry, smoothed her jogging pants, then followed his gaze to a framed photograph on the coffee table.
“My late husband,” Mrs. Walker said. Then added, “He worked for the Great East Coast Railway,” seeming to feel a need to explain the engineer’s cap.
Mabry had seen many engineers in his career, none of whom ever wore a cap, but kept it to himself. “When did he die?”
“December will make a year.”Mabry nodded, then could think of nothing else to say, not knowing the man.
Mrs. Walker said, “I imagine you know your way around trains pretty well.”
“Yes. The ins and outs. How they’re built.”
Mabry shrugged. “Sure.”
“And if something was, say, hidden in one. Like a in boxcar. You’d know how to find it?”
Mabry thought about it. “Not many places to hide in a boxcar.”
“Or hidden in any kind of train car.”
Mabry shrugged again and waited.
Mrs. Walker smoothed her pants again, which Mabry realized was a habit born out of the absence of anything else in her immediate radius to straighten.
“I believe my husband stole something,” she said, getting to it at last. “From the freight company.”
“You mean something owned by the company? Or the freight itself.”
“Freight,” she said. “Gold.”
“Ingots. Or gold bars.”
Mabry sipped the iced tea, which was tepid and bland, as though Mrs. Walker had devoted her full attention to neither ice nor tea. “What makes you say that?” he said.
“I saw it.”
“The gold, you mean.”
“Yes. I saw him carrying it on several occasions.”
She saw his look of doubt. “He worked in a high security area,” she said. “They used those armored boxcars. He told me about it once. Banks and financial institutions use the service to transport currency and other valuables.”
Mabry did know about that. “And you saw him carrying gold.”
“Yes. What I believe was gold, a bar or ingot, as I’ve said.”
“But you didn’t actually see the gold.”
“It makes sense, Mr. Mabry. There are other reasons.”
“Where was he going with it?” Mabry said, picking up the iced tea, then remembering the taste and cradling it in his lap. “Where would he hide it?”
Mrs. Walker stood, smoothed her pants, and went to the bay window. She swept open the big curtains.
There, beyond a low hedge and stretching in three directions under the pale autumn sky, lay what Mabry thought at first was a junkyard. But then understanding it wasn’t a junkyard at all, for there wasn’t a single automobile in the vast, scrub-choked plane. This place held only trains. Ancient locomotives, rusted boxcars, commuter cars, tankers, hoppers, flatbeds, gondolas. In the far distance, on a low ridge of second growth, Mabry thought he even spied the silver flank of a high-speed passenger cabin, its chrome detail winking in the early sun.
“Nice view,” Mabry said.
“Those bushes used to be taller. Lou cut them down so he could see that mess.”
“So he could see where he hid the gold.”
“This was before all that. Before he started acting funny. Not that he was ever normal.”
“So he just liked the view.”
“He was a rail fan, Mr. Mabry,” Mrs. Walker said, crossing her arms across her chest. “Have you ever heard of that?”
“Someone who likes trains.”
“That’s an understatement. Rabid about trains is better. Before he died the basement was wall-to-wall trains. Photographs, paintings, you name it. He even tried to set up a model train set down there.” She waved a hand. “I put a stop to that nonsense right away.”
“Which explains why he was an engineer. His love of trains.”
“He wasn’t an engineer. He worked for the freight company. So he could be around trains.”
“Also to steal gold.”
Mrs. Walker sighed. “He wasn’t a bad man, Mr. Mabry. Stupid, yes. Childish. He attended model train conventions, if you can imagine. An overweight, balding man wearing that silly cap. But I think an opportunity presented itself at the freight company and he took it.”
Mabry looked out over the vast graveyard.
“You’ll take twenty-five percent of whatever you find,” Mrs. Walker said, watching him.
He tried to estimate the number of dead trains in the salvage yard. Five-hundred? Eight? Certainly not a thousand.
Mabry said, “I’ll want a daily rate.”
It wasn’t like there was shooting. The way Mabry had planned it, he was in and out, no shooting, no one even aware that he was there until ten minutes after he walked out with the money. Philip was in the car – Mabry had no choice with that, Bobbi leaving the way she did without notice. But Philip was never in any real danger. When Mabry dropped him at the grandparents’ place the kid was even smiling.
It wasn’t like there was any shooting.
On Monday Mabry showed up at eight-fifteen, stepping out of the cab to a bright autumn chill and the waiting Mrs. Walker, who was standing by her car and looking at her watch.“I thought we agreed on eight-o’clock,” she said.
“Cab was late.”
“Arrive at eight. Lunch at noon. Closeout at four-thirty. That’s our agreement.”
She handed a stack of bills to the cab driver, who counted it and drove off, meaning she had somehow calculated the exact fare and tip. Mabry watched her get into her Toyota and drive away, wondering if the hundred a day was worth it, wishing he had held to his original price of two. But the woman had been immovable, and he needed the money. Two weeks, a hundred a day, then the agreement was terminated whether he found something or not. At least he had negotiated cab fare.
Now he went with his plan, which was to start at the far corner of the freight yard and work his way in. The thinking being, if this guy Lou wanted to hide something from his wife, he would probably get as far away as possible to do it.
But as Mabry picked his way through the pathless graveyard, he found the plan more difficult than he had imagined. After twenty minutes he had only covered about a hundred yards, the scrub and Bermuda grass hiding an invisible course of oxidized rails, potholes, locomotive parts, boulders, and tumbled deadwood. Here and there glass glittered in the watery sunlight, most from broken beer bottles, sparkling like green and amber gemstones scattered among the rust and debris.
He eventually settled on a row of commuter cars about halfway out, lined up on a an overgrown siding. Their broad silver sides were scrawled with old graffiti, like the faded hieroglyphs of some crumbled civilization. Inside, Mabry found more or less what he expected: shredded seat cushions, beer cans, used condoms, and yellowed skin magazines. Amid the swollen stuffing of one cushion he turned up twenty-six cents in tarnished coins. But no gold.At noon he made his way back toward the house, glad to be out in the sharp air and away from the odor of decay inside the cars. Mrs. Walker was there with sandwiches and more of the bland iced tea. He had nothing to report and so they spoke little, business being the only thing they really had in common.
He spent the afternoon poking through a jumble of dilapidated boxcars near the northwest corner of the yard, and realized it was going to be a long two weeks.
At lunch on the second day, after a fruitless search through a collection of locomotives – mostly diesel-electrics but there was even a rusty old steamer, its pulls and levers petrified to the floor like arthritic limbs – Mabry asked Mrs. Walker about her husband.
“I’m all over the place out there,” Mabry said, pinching one of Mrs. Walker’s finger sandwiches but not eating. The smell of coal tar creosote clung to his clothes and knocked the edge off his appetite, more than could be accounted for by the rubbery lunchmeat, which he had gotten used to yesterday. “I need a little more to go on.”
“What would you like to know?” Mrs. Walker said.
“Anything about him. His hobbies.”
“I told you, he was a rail fan. That’s all he did. All he ever thought of.”
“Only a social drinker. And no smoking.” She waved a hand, which Mabry noticed was a frequent gesture when discussing her husband. “At least not in my house.”
Mabry had entertained an idea of following a trail of empties and cigarette butts, but now tossed it aside. He said, “How did he die?”
“Lou was killed,” Mrs. Walker said. She sat with her hands in her lap, as though the subject of her husband’s demise was conventional parlor conversation.“Killed,” Mabry said.
Mrs. Walker stood and went to the bay window, pointed out. “They found him over there. By that group of newer freight cars? Two maintenance-of-way workers found him.”
Mabry said, “And you think this is something to do with the gold. Or the alleged gold.”
“Yes. I think the freight company sent someone out here. Or whatever company was shipping the gold.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t tell me before.”
“It’s not like there’s any danger to you. I’m sure whoever was looking for it has long given up.”
Mabry looked out at the boxcars. “Maybe it was an accident.”
“Not likely, Mr. Mabry,” she said. “He had a lightning rod through his heart.”
“They’re pretty common around here. We have one up on top of our house.” She nodded out the window at the flatness of the freight yard. “Being the tallest structure around. And all that metal lying about. The salvage company installed them on some of the train cars out there too, to attract the lightning away. But a lot of them have fallen off, or the kids have torn them down to play with.”
“Why would a hired killer use a lightning rod?”
“Not a hired killer. I think they sent someone out to retrieve the gold. But Lou wouldn’t tell them where it was, and they killed him.”
Mabry looked out at the group of freight cars. Maybe fifteen in all, some still holding their painted colors, mostly reds but some blues and yellows, bright in the midday sun. At least it was something.
“Why was he out there?” Mabry said. “Was he bringing out more gold or something?”
“Lou was in the habit of going out almost every night after work. He liked to take walks. But sometimes he’d be gone for a couple of hours. The thought of it. Out there with all that filth.” She picked a spot of lint from her pants and then hugged herself, looking out.
Mabry waited. “Anything else?”
She thought about it, said, “His knees were dirty.”
“Not his actual knees. His pants. I found them in the laundry several times, the knees dark with ground-in dirt.”
“Any idea why?”
“I’ve thought about it. Maybe he was crawling around, hiding the gold under a train car or something. I don’t really know. I asked him once and he had no answer.”
Mabry thought it might be a clue but made no comment either way. After lunch he made his way to the freight cars. The going in this part of the yard was stonier, one of the reasons he hadn’t gone this way. He wondered what would happen if he broke an ankle, whether Mrs. Walker would send someone out for him, or assume he was dead and wait for maintenance workers to find him in the morning.
What really stuck in Mabry’s mind, more than the way Bobbi was dressed or her impatient glances at the guy in the idling Mustang, was the way she had ignored Philip. At that time Philip was only three, but Mabry thought the kid knew a lot more than Bobbi gave him credit for. Philip’s round face peered through the fogged windows of the Buick, watching his parents stand out in the cold.
“What the hell is in Georgia?” Mabry said, seeing Bobbi glance again at the tricked out Mustang. It looked newly-waxed, the aftermarket spokes and chrome trim glinting under the cold sun, the driver only a silhouette behind the smoked glass.
“Well, it’s warm for one thing,” she said, hugging herself. Her skirt was sheer, too short for the weather. “And it’s not like we’re married or anything.”
Mabry said, “What about tomorrow?” Then realized that was a mistake, making it sound like the South Boston job was the only thing that mattered to him, standing here breaking up after a four-year relationship.
“I wasn’t going with you anyway.”
“But who’s going to watch Philip? The whole goddamned thing was planned.”
Bobbi didn’t answer, only half listening. She glanced down at her left hand, like a woman who inspects her nail polish, only Mabry had already seen her do it four or five times and knew she was looking at the diamond. He suspected it was Cubic Zirconium but didn’t say. Her eyes shimmered, meaning she had gotten her head up before the encounter and now it was starting to kick in. Her eyes could still look good with makeup if she took the time, the purple blotches underneath softened with the powdery stuff she used. But now they told him she was already gone.
He tried a few more arguments anyway, reminding her what he had given up to support her way of life, other lines of reasoning he had made over the years, trying to get her to back off the lifestyle. Arguments that had never worked then and didn’t now.
And then Bobbi was gone, the Mustang growling as it fishtailed out of the driveway, again at the stop sign. And she hadn’t even glanced at Philip.
Mabry’s first inclination was to look for a bloody spot, the place where Lou had been stabbed with the lightning rod. But then he remembered that almost a year had gone by, the Massachusetts seasons freezing, drenching, then baking away any sign that might have been left from that long ago encounter. So instead he concentrated on the group of newer boxcars, making his methodical way through their interiors, searching for something that looked out of place, a loose section of floor or ceiling. The going was slow. After crouching under four or five cars he gave up on the idea that Lou would have hidden anything there, the undersides smooth, the great wheels and axles exposed and devoid of hiding places. While he worked he thought, mostly about gold and lightning rods, but also about the hundred a day, and which bills he would pay first.
Mingled with the painted boxcars were three coal hoppers, as well as an old Pullman dining car. He tackled the hoppers first since they were the most difficult, their steel ladders flaking, the going especially shaky as he crested the tops for the descent into the pits. The first two held only scattered debris, enough so he had to get all the way down inside to see if anything had been hidden there. At the bottom of the third, amid a scrim of coal, lay a dead coyote. Mabry saw that it had bloodied its muzzle and paws clawing at the ladder to get out, its coat matted and black with coal dust. He saw how it had gotten in, leaping from a nearby outcrop of puddingstone, possibly after a bird or rodent. Then wondered what had been like, dying alone down there, cut off from its places of roaming and its children, starving to death for following its hungers.
Later, as Mabry explored the Pullman, a boy appeared, away to the east and picking his way through the tall grass. The windows of the Pullman had been shot out and Mabry saw the boy now and again, tossing stones or climbing boxcars, while Mabry inspected the Pullman’s ornately carved wooden booths and tables, the gilded tray ceiling. After an hour he had found no secret compartments or loose screws. When he thought to look again the boy’s bright yellow coat had vanished beyond the back of the yard.
At noon on Thursday, over tuna sandwich wedges as dry as ash, Mabry asked Mrs. Walker if there were any children.
“What, Lou and I?” Mrs. Walker said, nibbling a corner of a sandwich.
Mabry nodded. “I don’t see any photos around.”
“We were childless, Mr. Mabry.” She saw the way Mabry looked at her and added, “Not because we couldn’t. It was a decision.”
Mabry thought about it. “You probably liked to travel.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes. Mostly we stayed here and enjoyed our home. Children just never fit in.”
Meaning they we too messy, Mabry thought.
“How about you?” Mrs. Walker said. “Any little dependents? I don’t remember any on your application.”
Mabry thought about how to answer. He thought about Philip with Bobbi’s parents, the checks he was sending. Before the money dried up.
“No,” he said at last. “No dependents.”
By Wednesday of the second week, Mabry came to realize he was only going through the motions. The luster of the autumn afternoons had fallen off to a pre-winter gray, and with it Mabry’s belief that any gold existed in the rusted wasteland. He had scaled double-decker coaches, inspected snow plow engines, prowled cabooses. He had picked Mrs. Walker’s brain for details, believed he knew Lou as much as a man could learn about another man he had never met, but still had found no trace of him.
During the past five days the boy had appeared off and on, the yellow coat flickering at the fringe of Mabry’s vision like an occasional sunbeam slipping through the overcast. He always chose a different area of the vast yard in which to play, well beyond the distance Mabry could throw a stone or his voice. The boy never waved or acknowledged Mabry in any way. Mabry found himself thinking of Philip, and whether he had a place like this to roam, or if he spent his afternoons in the cluttered, shag-and-mahogany gloom of his grandparents’ apartment.
It wasn’t until Thursday morning, with two days remaining and nothing to show but the daily wage, that Mabry came to realize the boy was his only hope.
The birth of Philip had been a touch and go thing, what the pediatricians in the special care ward termed a cocaine birth. Bobbi went five weeks early and Philip showed up at less than half of the hospital’s average infant weight, looking to Mabry like one of those marionette puppets, his head too big, his body frail and stick-like, fighting it out in the pale glow of the incubator’s heat lamp.
Eventually they got Philip home and Mabry saw it as a new chapter in their life, and for a while it was true. Bobbi sometimes went for days without a visit to her guy in the north end, breaking the previous routine of once a day, twice when she was on a roll. A flame of motherly instinct seemed to flare up inside her, for a while burning away the other appetites, or at least outshining them.
But as Philip gained weight and his needs began to diminish to that of a normal baby, Bobbi’s needs slowly grew back to their normal weight as well. Mabry began to find the stashes of cheap vodka or rum in the usual places, in the toilet tank or the bottom of the laundry hamper. For some reason Bobbi was open about the cocaine and beer, but quiet about the hard stuff, as though she could manage her addictions by limiting their disclosure.
But the flame of motherhood never completely disappeared and for that reason Mabry held on, hoping for some future reform, a vague idea of change that always hovered on the edge of his thought, an elusive Monday morning that always seemed a week away but never actually came. Back then they were living off Mabry’s second or third heist, Mabry getting pretty good at Bobbi’s original idea. But always wondering where it would end, waiting for his own Monday morning. He saw it in his mind’s eye, stepping out of the apartment’s front door in a tie, back to the working grind but not dreading it. Something that utilized his talents more than the communications position he had held when he met Bobbi. Possibly something in management.
To Mabry the sight was so foreign, so utterly unexpected, that at first he thought it was a trick of the distance, an effect of the cloud shadow that obscured the basin of land between him and the boy. At first there was only cold terrain surrounding the cluster of boxcars across the valley. Then the yellow coat, emerging from the November earth like some bizarre, late bloom.
The fact that the boxcars were there at all was a surprise to Mabry. He had roamed the rear acreage of the yard twice in his two weeks, but had never climbed the bluff of second-growth, or known about this older section, an additional four or five acres of railroad salvage. Nor had he known about the crowded neighborhood of trailer homes beyond.
So a secret cave or tunnel, Mabry thought, his mind suddenly alive with possibilities, letting the thrill of it run through him. Lou must have known the boy. And the boy had the gold.
Mabry forced himself to be patient, waiting until the boy crossed the vale. When he was halfway up the rocky slope, Mabry stood and started down.
“Hey son,” he said, waving, putting on a friendly face.
The boy looked up and froze.
Mabry came on. “I’ve got a kid your age,” he said. Stretching the truth, but it didn’t matter because the kid turned and bolted back down the slope.
Mabry tried to follow, but after a dozen steps the terrain became loose, as slick as aquarium gravel, and Mabry nearly tumbled. When next he looked the kid had already reached the far side of the basin, and then he was gone, rocketing past the boxcars toward the trailer homes beyond. Mabry crossed the vale and reached the boxcars just as a light drizzle began to fall.
After thirty minutes of searching he cursed himself for not marking the location while up on the rise. Down here the cars all looked the same, the surrounding earth featureless but for some scrub pine and scattered pea gravel. Nothing resembling a hole or cave opening.
After two hours the drizzle swelled to a full rain and Mabry gave up, made his way up the treacherous slope and back to Mrs. Walker’s house. In the kitchen, over pallid instant coffee, Mrs. Walker said, “Only one day left. I thought you’d have more leads. Knowing your way around trains the way you do.”
Mabry shrugged. “Tomorrow’s another day,” thinking of the boy and the tunnel but keeping it to himself. No sense setting expectations.
“What will you do after this?”
“With your career. I’m wondering what you’ll do for work.” She paused. “Whether you’ll stay in trains.”
Mabry could tell she wanted to ask about the robberies. He said, “I’m looking for something else.”
Mrs. Walker set her coffee down. “Have you ever had a regular job?” Getting into it now.
Mabry looked across the table at the bronzed hair, the folded hands and patient smile. He said, “At one time.”
And he thought about his last real job, where he met Bobbi. Fresh out of the army and plying his new vocation in railroad communications, surprised at how quickly he had gotten a job in the growing field of high-speed passenger services. Traveling up and down the east coast with a small crew on a rip-and-replace project, pulling out the old control equipment and installing the new fiber optic stuff, the modernized computer-operated systems. The company also handled freight lines and that’s where he met Bobbi, doing light secretarial for an armored freight carrier in Virginia.
Bobbi’s habit had already been heavy back then, but Mabry was young and open-minded and it was kind of cool, going to the parties or just hanging out and getting high, cramming all your sleep into Sunday night after your nose was too burned out for any more blow.
Then that one party, hanging with that coke-freak friend of Bobbi’s, the skinny guy who worked for a security consulting company. The guy’s head was up but he had said some lucid things, talking about social engineering, how companies spent piles of money on electronic and physical security but always forgot about the third piece, the human factor. The guy’s firm did something called penetration testing, where the coke head or one of the other consultants would dress up as a maintenance worker or delivery guy and walk right into a place, the workers all assuming it was alright because the guy looked legitimate. Or a computer repairman, asking workers their passwords, people giving them without thinking twice. The consultants would go into the system and pull out some data, maybe the company’s tax return or the names and birthdays of the CEO’s kids. Then charge the company big money to go in and educate the workers, teach them how to react to social threats.
And so Bobbi had come up with the scheme. Mabry was resistant to the idea, and for two months Bobbi worked on him, withholding her affections and sulking. Finally Mabry had given in and worked with Bobbi on the preparations, which took another month.
And then, when the timing was right, he had gone in and done it, stepping into Bobbi’s office on her off day, wearing a records management name tag, which Bobbi had gotten off the Internet and sewn onto his shirt. Timing the visit around a currency transfer. And the receptionist had buzzed him right in, even telling him which part of the vault they kept the backup tapes in. If Mabry wasn’t so nervous that first time it might have been comical, there among so many security precautions: time locks, fortified boxcars, razor ribbon, video surveillance, and sealed containers. But no armed guard inside the secure area, just the transfer agent, moving bags from the vault to the container. Mabry was apprehensive but it turned to be easy, stepping in and nuzzling the bogus .38 under the man’s chin, forcing him back into the boxcar and telling him to stay put, making him believe Mabry was with a team. Mabry felt some remorse afterwards, counting out the twenty-two thousand, remembering the way the transfer agent had looked, talking about his two kids and begging Mabry to spare him. But for Bobbi it was the start of an extended party.
Later they got worried, Bobbi hearing that parts of Mabry’s face had been visible on the video. Bobbi quit the freight company and they left the little furnished apartment and drove up the coast to D.C.. From there it was easy to repeat the process, watching the routines at the local freight depots from the parking lots and finding a pattern, going with a different plan each time but always using what the coke head had taught them about social engineering. They had varying success, the smallest score being the first twenty-two, the biggest almost fifty. After that one Bobbi worked on Mabry to quit the communications job. She liked the lifestyle.
And Mabry had embarked on his new career.
A blast of Canada air shouldered out the rain, Mabry’s last day on the job coming in bright and hard with a bitter wind. He spent the morning out of sight of the crouching trailer homes, sitting in the relative warmth of a wood-floored boxcar. At noon he skipped the trek back to Mrs. Walker’s house and resisted the temptation to go out and look for the tunnel, waiting it out, letting his mind wander through the possibilities.
Much later a sound jarred Mabry and he sat up, realizing he had dozed, seeing that some of the brightness had faded from the day. He waited and the sound came again, a scuffle of shoes on gravel. He peered around the edge of the boxcar door and the boy was there, not six feet away. He was squatting, bent over something on the ground.
A moment later a section of earth seemed to shift before the boy’s feet. As Mabry watched it broke free, a tidy three-foot square, shrubs and all. The boy grunted and Mabry saw how he did it, a length of black cable attached to a sheet of plywood, sliding now as the boy pulled. Mabry remembered stepping on that cable yesterday as he searched in the rain, probably more than once. The camouflage had been artfully done, earth and pea stone attached to the wood in a realistic manner, dead shrubs carefully placed to avoid a wayward step and subsequent discovery of the hollow place underneath. Mabry remembered Mrs. Walker’s comment about the dirty knees, felt something shift in his gut.
When the yellow coat disappeared, swallowed up by the hole, Mabry stepped out. He went to the opening, saw that the hole extended into a tunnel of sorts. He could hear the kid rustling further in. He turned it over in his head a few times, wondering how to play it.
“Hey son,” he said, bending to the opening, deciding it was the only way. The hole was wide enough to accommodate his frame, but following the kid in would only frighten him.
The rustling stopped. Mabry waited but the boy said nothing.
“Come on out, son.”
More rustling, and the boy’s head appeared. “What do you want?” the boy said. There was a fear in his eyes that Mabry couldn’t equate to the situation.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What do you want?” the boy said again.
“I need to see your tunnel.”
The boy’s eyes darted away, then back to Mabry. “You can’t be there. Someone’s going to see you.”
Mabry looked around, realized he was in view of the trailer homes. The opening itself was hidden by the angle of the boxcars and the slope of the land. The boy had probably approached from the opposite side so he could remain hidden.
“I’m coming in.”
“No,” the boy said, but backed away into the tunnel as Mabry approached.
Mabry squatted, peered in. The earth had been excavated to a depth of four or five feet, the walls muddy from the rain but smooth-sided. Looking closer, Mabry saw how the tunnel had been formed, not really a tunnel but a trench with a roof of plywood, camouflaged along the surface with more shrubs and soil. Mabry could hear the boy’s rustling further in, the nylon coat noisy in the darkness. After a moment’s hesitation he lowered himself into the hole.
Then worried, because the boy was gone. Somehow the kid had vanished up ahead, the yellow coat no longer visible. Mabry paused, listened. A new sound came back, hollow and metallic. The boy had gotten into some other part of the tunnel. There were footsteps.
Then all at once he got it. He lifted his head out of the hole and saw the boxcar, across from the opening a dozen feet away. The boy had to be inside it, gone up through a hole in the floor. The reason for the trench became clear: it allowed access to the boxcar without crossing the dozen feet, which were in view of the trailer homes through a gap between the other boxcars.
After a claustrophobic scuttle in the dark Mabry was there, squeezing his shoulders through the opening in the floor of the car. The wheels had settled and the floor was only a few inches from the ground, causing Mabry to wonder how the hole, a neat, nearly perfect square in the steel, had been cut.
Looking around the inside of the car, he got several answers at once, more than he could take in and process. The sliding door had been secured from the inside with a hasp and padlock, answering his first question. Whoever had cut the opening in the floor had done it from the inside, then locked the door. Other holes he been drilled in strategic locations for natural light, and a pair of battery-powered lanterns stood in each of the four corners.
Scattered around the space were various artifacts. Remnants, Mabry thought, of a dead man. An ashtray shaped like a coal car, the filters of three or four butts still lying in its bottom. A tattered engineer’s cap hanging on a nail. Taped to the wall were several grainy instant snapshots of the boy or Lou with that same cap perched on their heads, twisted in odd directions, the subjects tugging on their ears or making funny faces.
And the model train set. More than just a set. A whole model city, taking up most of the boxcar’s floor. Trees, office buildings, bridges, high-tension poles, cell towers. A plastic lake with miniature sailboats. Cars, trucks, pedestrians. Even an airport, its tiny painted aircraft huddled around the hanger like exotic insects. And through it all a winding track, a shining pair of steel ribbons meandering through the landscape.
Mabry heaved himself into the car for a closer look. The boy stood in a corner, silent.
Parked in a section of track in the far corner, directly in front of the boy, was another answer, the real reason Mabry was here. The model train was one of the larger scales, maybe HO or S, Mabry could never remember how they went. It was at least twenty cars long and made of solid brass, right down to the wheels and fittings. The caboose glittered in a shaft of sunlight from one of the holes in the wall. Mabry could see how Mrs. Walker could mistake one of the cars for a bar of gold.
“Mr. Walker did this?” Mabry said.
The boy didn’t speak.
Mabry looked around, noticed an aluminum baseball bat standing in the corner, a tattered baseball on the floor.
“He played ball with you.” Mabry said. Then stared the boy down until he nodded. The kid was dirty, and not only from the crawl through the hole. His fingernails and hair looked like they hadn’t seen the inside of a bathtub in recent memory.
“Mr. Walker was quite a craftsman.”
When the boy didn’t answer again, Mabry went back to taking in the space, his eyes falling again upon the ashtray. He wondered how Lou got the smell of smoke from his clothes after his evening excursions. Probably delayed coming home until Mrs. Walker was in bed, then tossed his clothes in the hamper. Or more likely the pair didn’t sleep together at all.
“Diesel,” the boy said.
Mabry looked up. The boy was watching him. “What?”
“That was his nickname. Diesel. Mine’s Steamer.”
Mabry nodded. Rail fan nicknames. Although Diesel didn’t seem quite right for an overweight, balding man. He went to the line of brass cars and plucked a boxcar from the track, unexpectedly liking the feel of it, the weight in his hand. “What happened to Diesel?”
The boy shrugged, then squatted and began adjusting pieces of artificial landscape.
Mabry watched for a while, thinking it out but not too hard. There was no gold. So the job was over.
He was about to stand when a sound came from outside the car. He looked up. The boy froze.
Then a voice, coming through the opening in the floor. “Get your ass out of that hole, boy.”
The look of fear, now amplified, was back on the boy’s face. He stood and went straight to the hole without looking at Mabry.
Mabry went to the hole after the boy disappeared, then paused, thought about it. He stuffed the brass boxcar into his back pocket, then went to the corner and picked up the aluminum bat.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man said as Mabry emerged into the sunlight. The boy stood a few paces away, hands thrust in his pockets and staring at his shoes.
Despite the cold, the man wore a faded cotton athletic shirt, his exposed arms thin but ropy with veins. A red stubble covered his jaw and cheeks, hair flat on one side as though he had just awoken. His eyes were watery and rimmed with red. Meaning he was coming down off something and not happy about it.
The man held something in his hand. It took Mabry two or three hard heartbeats to realize it was a lightning rod.
“The fuck you doing with my boy?” the man said.
“No one’s doing anything with him.”
“Damn kid draws queers like a magnet.” He raised the lightning rod a little, suddenly inflamed by his own words.
Mabry said, “You don’t know a thing about the boy, do you?”
“Fucking around in holes with grown men. That’s enough.”
Mabry realized then that the man – by ignorance or plain lethargy – had never bothered to see what was on the other side of the tunnel.
“The boy likes model trains,” Mabry said. “Did you know?”
“Who the hell are you to tell me about my own boy?”
“Someone needs to.”
The guy spat something in the dirt. “You think you could do better mister?”
Mabry thought he could. As he passed, the guy made a feint with the lightning rod, but Mabry raised the bat and the guy stepped back. Which told Mabry that overweight, balding men were more the man’s speed. He wondered where it had happened, whether the guy had done it here and moved the body to the other section, or if he had ambushed Lou in the dark as he walked back home through the yard. Then decided it didn’t matter.
He left the brass boxcar with Mrs. Walker and explained about the boy, then called a taxi. Today’s hundred would be enough for cab fare to Philip’s grandparents’ apartment complex. He thought about telling Mrs. Walker about the father and the lightning rod. But then changed his mind and let that part lie as a mystery, a random act. A boy needed a father.
BIO: Robert Peza has published stories in the magazines Mysterical-E, Amarillo Bay, Conversely, Shots, Millenium Writings, and Gorilla magazine. His short story, "Love Triangle," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005. He lives in Massachusetts and is currently working to locate an agent for a recently-completed detective novel.