Closer To God
The train seemed to take forever to reach its maximum velocity, as dinner came and went inside our small cabin. We prepared for the night ahead. I sent Burt off to check on the men we had left in custody, while the Earth Mothers prepped our area for sleep. I moved into the top bunk, by direction. The laws of sociobiology reigned, much as I knew they would, and Wendy declined to join me, preferring the company of her friends on the floor. Burt would be relegated to the bench seat, which would suit his overly large body badly, while Dingo would remain zipped in below.
Women do not have sex for sport. No women. Men believe they do, because women perpetrate that myth, just as men claim to be in love in order to enjoy sex.
Each gender gets mad at the other when it is time for real cards to be turned over on the table of life. My card was the empty upper bunk, but I was not upset about it. Sex always comes with entanglements. No matter what is said going in, the old phrase: “will you respect me in the morning?” has true merit. Plus there was the group phenomenon. Women do not like to perform in front of their peers. And I was bone tired, which had to be close to Burt’s condition. You do not get shot at, or play the fugitive, without substantial psychological, and emotional, energy output.
Burt returned, but motioned me from the door.
“Secret stuff?” Wendy intoned. “I thought we’d thrown in together.”
There was a silence in the room following her remark. Burt had closed the door, no doubt pacing up and down in the outside passage. Whatever he had to say I knew I was not going to want to hear.
“I think Burt’s afraid to come in. I better go reassure him,” I said, getting some small snickers, but nothing from Wendy. I didn’t feel guilty. The Earth Mothers were bright, tough, and had been around the Horn, but they were not equipped or ready to deal with what was facing Burt and I. Collateral damage was acceptable, but I did not want it to be any, or all, of these women. I stepped out, closing the door carefully behind me. I didn’t say anything, leaning back against the hardwood.
“They’re gone. Room’s empty. None of the porters or the conductor is saying a word. What do you think happened?”
I could tell from Burt’s tone that he already knew what had happened.
The Aegis men had used the money I’d given them to bribe the train people. They had skipped right over the custody issue they’d committed to and gotten off while the train was still stopped. I had underestimated just how tough they were. I pictured the two guys with broken wrists trying to support the broken ankle off the train, and across the quarter mile, or so, of rough country to Mombasa Road. The passage would have been a physical nightmare to go through. But those guys had nightmares every night anyway, I knew. We were all brothers in Post Traumatic Stress.
“My mistake,” I said, seriously. “We’re now more than likely to have company at the station when we arrive. They don’t have cell phones but they might just find a willing soul passing by on that road tonight.”
Burt stared out of the window into the fading light. The sun was already down, but the play of evening sunset splayed through the tops of the Baobab trees.
Our movement magnified the great beauty of the Savannah.
“I don’t know. Three white guys, rough looking, damaged, and trying to thumb a ride on that road at night? We might just get lucky here.” Burt turned to meet my eyes. We both knew that we had been ungodly lucky just to be alive to ride the train.
Could our string last? But there were no options. We could stop the train and bail out ourselves. That would put us in the same pickle as the Aegis team. Our odds were best if we continued on down to Mombasa as we were doing, and rested for the day ahead.
“You’re on the bench. I’m up in the top bunk. Both alone,” I said, opening the door behind me.
“Figured. Life just isn’t that good,” he replied.
I didn’t know what time it was when a poking finger in my right side awakened me. I looked down at my wrist in the dark, but the Omega was long gone.
“Can I come in?” Wendy’s voice said quietly, near the edge of the bunk.
“Just to sleep. I haven’t slept with a man for years. I’d like that. Just too sleep?”
“Okay by me,” I replied to her request.
She settled in next to me, her back pressed into my side. I stared up into the dark, seeing nothing. Her body felt comforting and protective. I hadn’t slept with a woman in years, but I would never admit that to Wendy, or anyone else.
Kenya is one of only ten countries in the world through which the equator passes, and Mombasa was about a hundred kilometers from that imaginary line. Dawn was always, year round, at about six forty-five in the morning, and the sun set around seven at night. It was dark when I awakened to the sounds of the Earth Mothers preparing for a new day. A paraffin lamp burned atop what passed for a dresser inside the tiny cabin, sending an eerie wavering light flickering off the lacquered wood of the walls.
I checked my non-existent watch again, grimacing at the thought of not having one.
“What time is it,” I asked, noting that I was alone in the bunk.
“Five,” Burt said, his voice penetrating up from among the girl’s moving bodies. Burt appeared to be making believe he could fall back into sleep.
“What’s our plan?” Wendy said, her head popping up from below, chin
resting on the edge of the bunk. She looked like the portrait of a beautiful angel, backlit by soft yellow light from the lamp.
I slung my feet over the side of the bunk.
“What do you think, Burt?” I asked.
“Mmmmm,” was all he responded.
“They’re likely to be waiting at the depot in Mombasa, Wendy. We can’t exactly get off with everyone and get lost in the crowd.” I massaged my unshaven chin. I hated not having a shave in the morning, or brushing my teeth and a shower, for that matter.
“Silver Streak,” Burt mumbled from across the cabin, Dingo having pushed him into a sitting position, then hugging him closely.
“Yeah, it was a movie, what about it?” I shot back, impatiently.
Burt frowned at the girl, uncomfortable with her physical attention. I wondered if he was one of those people who hated any contact with humanity just after rising in the morning.
“In the movie the train ran out of control, right through the station. We could try that,” he said, massaging his temples with both hands. There had been a lot of wine consumed the night before.
“ I’m not even sure we can reach the engine on this thing,” I replied, thinking about his idea. “And the depot is just a side building along the tracks, like the one in Nairobi, but maybe the tracks continue somewhere for shipping purposes.”
I climbed down to the floor, and then put my shoes on. “We’ve got a lot of shillings. Let’s see what I can find out. Wendy, you see if you can get hold of some coffee from the dining car, maybe something sweet to get the blood flowing. I pulled out a five thousand shilling note. She took the money. We both headed for the door.
“Be right back,” I said to Burt. “Maybe you can handle all these women on your own.” The light was sufficient for me to see that Helen and Anice, unlike Wendy and Dingo, were dressed in only panties, as they prepared for the day ahead.
I followed Wendy through the dining car, and then went on into the fourth class carriages until I found the conductor. I wondered, as I shelled out another five thousand, whether he also held some of the money I had given the Aegis guys. He informed me that the engine could be reached, but it would be a climb, as the thing was attached backwards. I would have to jump down to a catwalk, and then make my way back to the engineer’s small capsule on the other end. He didn’t bother to ask why I wanted to reach the man. The conductor was having a rewarding run down to Mombasa, no matter what I might be up to.
When I got back to the cabin, coffee steamed up from a pot set next to the paraffin lamp. Everyone was eating some sort of pastry, including Burt, who had grown more accustomed to Dingo having attached herself to his right side. The women were dressed, and all the packs were lined up near the door. Things could not have been more organized on a Marine Corps operation.
I explained the plan over coffee, standing with my back pressed against the door. Wendy poked a hole in the plan immediately.
“Right past the station the rail ends. We could only get fifty or sixty feet past it, which wouldn’t be enough to help at all. Unless the train didn’t switch tracks to run into the station, I mean.”
“What switch?” I asked, my coffee ignored in my left hand.
“The train storage facility and turn-around is right there, on the other side of the station. We have to switch tracks to curve into the station or we go right past on the other side,” she answered.
“Time?” I asked the room.
“Six,” Burt said, checking his watch. The window next to him was beginning to give off faint light. Dawn was minutes away. We were supposed to arrive in Mombasa at dawn. I wondered if the engineer had run faster because of our stop or whether we were going to be late, not that it mattered.
“Wendy, what’s the first major road the train would cross if it went through the storage facility?” I inquired.
“I don’t know Mombasa that well,” she answered, but Helen has a Michelin map.”
Helen of Troy opened a zipper in her pack, and then began unfolding a large road map. Mombasa took up on whole corner. Anice brought the paraffin lamp to the floor, holding it just above the flattened paper. I peered at the map.
“Moi,” I said, pointing at the only main road to cross the tracks after the depot. If we can get to that interchange, then we’ll be a good mile or more from the station, and I’d be willing to bet the Aegis people will take a while getting organized before they figure out what we’ve pulled, anyway. If we pull it off.”
“I’ve got to go forward, see if this can be done, then come back,” I went on. “If we can do it then you’ve got to call our Marine on the cell and have him meet us. If he’s made it himself, that is.” I pointed at Burt’s chest when I spoke.
“You have to go back up there if we can,” Burt said, after a moment. “You can’t just pay the engineer, then expect he’ll do the job. Our lives are riding on this.”
I did not miss his slight inflection, the words left unsaid, the words that would have stated my complicity in risking ourselves so badly.
“Yeah,” I replied, simply, gulping my coffee down, then went through the door. I checked my pockets filled with shillings and the small automatic. One way or the other we were going to Mombasa, but not to the station, not if I had anything to do say about it.
Standing on a small platform outside the passage car, I realized that the job I had taken on so casually was going to be fairly challenging. I stood at least eight feet above the coupling that connected us to the engine. There were no handholds to use in climbing down, or back up on the engine on the other side, if I was able to get there. The catwalk that ran around the noisy diesel was not open at the end. The only way to get over was to jump six feet through the air, catch the rail at my waist as my feet found purchase under it, and then vault over the top. Everything was made of very hard looking metal, and the light was so slight that I could not fully make out the far end of the engine. The jump was three feet down to the engine’s catwalk level. There would be no jumping back. I was a field agent in pretty good shape. I was not a gymnast. I returned to the cabin.
“Here it is,” I said, grabbing another cup of coffee from Helen. “The trip to the engine is one way. You’re right Burt, I can’t leave the man to change his mind, if this can be done. And I can’t make it back. We have to gamble that we can do it. Bailout is that I have him stop before we hit the station.” I motioned for the map again.
“There it is,” I pointed. “Makande. Quite a ways before the station, and in a lousy area, but it’ll do. If we have to bail there we’ll be running across a lot of tracks, then some through some swamp and cardboard housing. I know that area.
Give me the extra throwaway cell,” I said to Burt. He handed it over. The phone only had half a charge left. We had no charger. I checked the autodial screen.
The other phone was the only number listed. I hit ‘send.’ Burt’s phone rang once and I hung up.
“I’ll call. If I don’t, then I’ll use the train’s whistle. Three short means Plan A is a go. Two means Plan B. If there’s no call, and no use of the whistle, then you’re on your own.” I looked around the brightening room. I noted that the Earth Mother’s no longer seemed as certain of the adventure, as they’d been the night before, but there was nothing to be said. Mortal danger was upon us, and nobody sane ever took that lightly.
I wanted to grab Wendy, bend her over for a kiss and say something like “Here’s lookin’ at you kid,” but that feeling quickly passed. I headed back to the front of the car. We were operational. My body and mind were running on all twelve cylinders. I was doing what I lived to do and I felt the adrenalin kicking in to help.
The leap to the engine was not as difficult as I had considered earlier. The pain of hitting my hips on the single pipe, which served as the rail, was worse. I almost bent over the rail and fell into the face of the engine’s metal cover, but I caught myself. It took a few seconds sitting on the catwalk to get my breath back, and let the pain lessen to a tolerable level.
I made my way to the angled window where the catwalk ended. A small door was cut into the side of the engine cover just forward of the window. There was no handle on the outside. I breathed in and out deeply, considering. Finally, I took out the automatic, and then smacked the window several times hard, but not hard enough to break it. I quickly put the gun back in my pocket, took out a handful of shillings and pressed them against the glass. The engineer’s face appeared over the splayed bills. His eyes grew large. He disappeared and the door opened.
Once down inside the small enclosure I realized that the engineer and I were not alone. A woman crouched in one corner, clutching two small children to her with both arms. The children stared at me as if I had landed from outer space.
“My family. They ride for free here. You not notice. I not notice you.”
The engineer smiled a big smile, extending both arms out wide. I looked at him and smiled back. His family’s illegal presence might help me. I told him what I wanted.
“Yardmaster and switch operator control everything in the yard. I can use the remote control switches here when we get near the yard, but the yardmaster will be very very angry. The switch operator there may change the track back. He knows we are supposed to go to the station, and we don’t know what is on the tracks up ahead. There is terrible risk.”
I produced thirty thousand shillings. More than the man made in a year of operating the train.
“If you don’t tell them, go very slow, and we make it to Moi Road,” I said, handing him ten thousand. “The rest when we’re there. You can tell them what you want, but not about me.” Kenya took its railroad system very seriously. I did not want the authorities to pursue us with any kind of zeal. The engineer took the two bills, and then handed them to his wife. Her face lit up. I stared into the darkness ahead, hoping that I’d made the right decision. If we hit something, the engineer, his family, and I would certainly be among the earliest fatalities.
I pushed the button for Burt on the cell phone. He answered on the first ring.
“Three quick blips on the whistle,” I told the engineer. He complied, a look of question on his forehead.
“Got it?” I asked into the device. The sound of the engine was too loud for me to hear anything. I imagined it was the same for Burt on the other end, but there could be no misunderstanding the signal from the engine’s whistle.
The Silver Streak was headed on in to Mombasa, come what may.