After a devastating fire at an insane asylum in California, Hook Runyon has been put in charge of security for a train that is to transport the survivors, alongside the head of the asylum, Dr. Baldwin, the attending doctor, taciturn Dr. Helms, and a self-sacrificing nurse named Andrea, to a new location in Oklahoma. Hook hires a motley crew of WW II veterans to help, and they set out for the new destination. But things go awry on the Insane Train, as several inmates and attendants are found dead, and Dr. Baldwin seems increasingly disoriented and incapable of running operations. With Andrea's help, Hook begins investigating the suspicious deaths, and uncovers a trail of revenge that has been a long time in the planning...by a person as mentally disturbed as her charges.
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About the Author
DR. SHELDON RUSSELL is the author of five novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
DR. SHELDON RUSSELL, Professor Emeritus, University of Louisville, and University of Central Oklahoma, is the author The Yard Dog, The Insane Train, and four previously published historical novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
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The railroad security agent Hook Runyon slipped on his arm prosthesis before sitting down in his caboose to read the Needles paper. "Boys Die in Barstow Asylum Fire," the headlines read. He pushed the paper aside and poured a cup of coffee. There was nothing like starting a new day with coffee and a dose of human tragedy.
But he'd no sooner sat down when he heard Pap Gonzales, the Santa Fe section foreman, pull in with the motorcar. Pap was the section foreman here in Needles, California. His real name was Papan, though everyone called him Pap, including his wife and kids. They'd scheduled an early start to beat the desert heat. According to Pap, someone had been switch tampering at one of the crossings.
Hook dumped his cup and went out to meet him. Pap looked at his watch as Hook fished out a cigarette. Hook offered him one, but Pap declined. Soon they were clattering down the track. It was early and far too noisy for conversation, so they rode in silence into the desert morning.
When they arrived at the crossing, Pap coasted to a stop and shut off the motor. Hook got out and walked up and down the track. He hiked his foot up on the motorcar and then lit up another cigarette.
"I can't see that it has been tampered with," he said, looking up at Pap through the smoke.
"Someone's tried to lever it over," Pap said.
"There's nothing left of the switch point, Pap. That's a section-gang problem, not security. I'm tired of running out every time a car jumps track. Why don't you fix these damn switches before someone gets killed?"
"We've had a war on, Hook, been fighting Germans, or maybe you don't remember. I haven't had men enough to keep the main line open much less patch up siding switches."
"She's worn thin as a razor," Hook said. "I'd suggest you boys replace it or shut it down."
Pap pushed back his hat. "Albuquerque's been screaming about a washout for a week, but I'll just tell them I got orders from the Santa Fe yard dog to shut down the line so's he doesn't have to be bothered."
"That ought do it," Hook said, climbing onto the motorcar. "Everybody knows how much pull I have around here."
Pap cranked the engine of the motorcar and waited as she popped into life. Hooked liked riding the open car, though on a hot day in the Mojave, which was damn near every day, the wind could take off a man's hide.
The wheels chattered and growled as the car gathered up speed. When the Needles depot came into view, Pap idled back.
"Want to go to your caboose, Hook?" he asked, over the clatter of the wheels.
"Yard office," Hook said, pointing ahead. "Need to check in. Can you wait for me?"
Pap looked at his watch and shook his head. "Don't be long. Main line ain't the place to be sitting when the Chief comes through."
The Santa Fe Chief was powered by a diesel electromotive engine. The electric giants had begun to impact the railroad. They were more efficient, more reliable, and could travel a hell of a lot more miles without maintenance. But even the advancement in equipment could not offset the reduction in manpower when thousands of men went off to war. The result was a railroad struggling to maintain its system.
Hook checked in at the yard office and found a note in his box saying Eddie Preston, his boss out of Division, wanted him to call.
He dialed the number with his prosthesis and lit a cigarette. Eddie never called unless he had a problem, and the problem for the last month had been Hook himself.
While in hot pursuit of a bum outside Flagstaff one night, Hook had abandoned the company truck. He caught the bum, and everything would have been fine, except for one small detail. He'd failed to get the tail end of the truck off the crossing. A west-bound freighter tore off the bumper and dragged it a quarter mile down line. They said it looked like the Fourth of July.
Eddie had been pretty unreasonable about the whole situation and filed Hook's third Brownie for the year. He transferred Hook from Oklahoma to Needles, pointing out that the Mojave was just the place to keep a man prone to trouble on the straight and narrow. Hook had been awaiting the results of the Disciplinary Review Board ever since.
When Eddie came on the line, Hook doused his cigarette. "Eddie, this is Hook Runyon."
"Where you been, Runyon? Why haven't you called?"
"Pap's been having problems with some switches," he said, "and it's hard to phone from the middle of the Mojave."
"I got a call from Topeka," Eddie said. "There's a situation in Barstow."
"What kind of situation?"
"I want you to catch the Chief in the morning. Contact a Doctor Theo Baldwin at the Baldwin Insane Asylum."
"Insane asylum? Are you nuts, Eddie?"
"That ain't funny, Runyon."
"What do they want?" Hook asked.
"There's been a fire, people killed. Their facility is damaged, so they are in need of moving a lot of people and all at once. Call me when you've got the details."
It must have been the same fire he'd seen in the newspaper headline. Hook adjusted the harness for his prosthesis. The damn thing hung on him like a horse collar. He could hear Eddie breathing on the other end of the line.
"Has the disciplinary board met?" Hook asked.
"I was chasing the bastard in the middle of the night, Eddie. How could I know the damn truck hadn't cleared the track? Anyone could have made the mistake."
"Except it was you, Runyon, the third mistake this year."
"But I got a commendation for busting that Nazi case in the Alva POW camp, didn't I? That ought to count for something."
"It does. Without it you wouldn't even be getting a hearing. Call me when you get Barstow lined out. Topeka's on my ass."
Pap had gone to sleep on the motorcar, and Hook kicked the bottom of his foot.
"Take me up to the caboose, will you, Pap? I got to catch the Chief to Barstow tomorrow."
Pap gave the crank a couple hard turns, and the motor struggled to life.
"Barstow?" he said over the top of the engine.
"Something going on at the insane asylum," Hook said.
Pap didn't say anything until he brought the car to a stop at the caboose.
"You're going to the insane asylum in Barstow?" he asked.
Hook climbed off. "Just keep it to yourself, Pap. I take enough ribbing from you bastards as it is."
"Oh, sure, sure," Pap said. "I won't tell a soul."
"Come pick me up in the morning, Pap. Maybe you could take care of Mixer while I'm gone. He loves going out with the crew."
Mixer fell into the category of mutt, an English shepherd and something or the other. The two things Mixer loved most in the world were fighting and eating, in that order.
"Damn it, Hook, you know it's against the rules to take a dog out on the line."
"That's kind of the point, isn't it, Pap? I enforce the rules, and I figure this to be a safety issue. One of your men might stir up a snake while he's sleeping under a bridge, or you might get waylaid by banditos. That dog could save your life."
Pap grinned, choked the engine a couple times, cranked her over, and rolled off down the track.
Mixer met Hook at the door. He wound through his legs and then went to the cabinet to beg for food. Hook had found him beat up and half- starved in the yards and brought him back to the caboose wrapped in his coat. Hook had fed him cornbread and milk and dabbed iodine on his wounds. Within a week Mixer had cleaned him out of food and never once since showed the least inclination to leave.
Though at times a nuisance, Mixer had arrived at a lonely time in Hook's life, filling a pretty big hole. After Hook was sent to Needles, Reina had returned to Rhode Island. At first they had written letters, a commitment that had faded over time. As the months passed, the letters dwindled and the frenzy cooled, though neither had been willing to admit it.
Reina had been there for him in dangerous times in the past. They had loved and made love, and that could never be lost. But memories can fade from flames to embers and then grow cold beneath the ash. The last time they'd talked, they'd reached out to each other, never quite touching.
Hook shoved aside a pile of books in order to get the closet door open. Desperate for more room, Hook had talked his ole pal Runt Wallace into storing his book collection while he was gone.
But a man suffering from book madness had little chance of a cure. Only six months had passed, and already the caboose creaked under the weight of his new titles. With a little luck, he'd manage some book hunting in Barstow. While not the literary heart of the world, at least it would be new and different.
He dug out a change of clothes and hung them on the safety rail that ran down the center of the caboose ceiling. The old steamers had a weak power stroke on takeoff, so the engineers would back up and then throttle forward to bump her ahead. By the time the slack hit the caboose forty cars down line, a man could accelerate from zero to ten miles an hour in one second. On more than one occasion, the handrail had saved him from being propelled across the caboose like a cannonball.
A jug of Runt Wallace's forty-year-old shine still sat in the closet. One day, given the right occasion, he'd dip in. For now, he had enough trouble to keep him busy. Eddie didn't need much of a reason to send another Brownie his way, and finding a job for a one-arm yard dog would be tough indeed.
That night, after he'd polished his shoes, he hung his prosthesis over the chair and went to bed early to read a little of Bradbury's Dark Carnival. When the coyotes tuned up out on the desert, Mixer growled.
"Go to sleep," Hook said, turning out the light. "You can't take on the whole world. Damn dog."
Hook gathered up his pillow and listened to the coyotes. He didn't know what awaited him at Baldwin Insane Asylum. But he did know that when Eddie called on an assignment, it would be neither good nor easy.
Hook sat straight up. The blackness of the early morning hours filled the caboose like a still pool. No more than a sliver of moonlight cast through the cupola window and onto the floor. He'd heard something, something that had brought him out of a deep sleep. He turned his ear into the silence. Perhaps his imagination had gone wild, the foreboding that could rise up unbidden in the night hours. Perhaps Mixer had sought out the water dish, as he sometimes did, or perhaps the wind had swept in from the desert.
He lay back and closed his eyes. Mixer's soft snore came from the back corner of the caboose where Hook kept the throw rug. Hook wondered if he'd latched the door, taken the basic precaution against intruders. He'd been known to forget, particularly when he'd had a drink or two or had become too comfortable with his surroundings, a foolish mistake for someone well schooled in the depravity of man. Who knew better than a railroad yard dog that crime respected neither time nor place, that evil thrived on complacency and overconfidence and sought out weakness like a pack wolf?
He turned on his side and stared into the darkness. In that moment he sensed the cool of the night air entering the caboose. He could just make out the shadow of someone standing in the doorway. His heart tripped in his ears as he searched the blackness for his sidearm. The crash of the ashtray onto the floor brought Mixer out of his slumber. His yaps resounded in the confines of the caboose, and Hook's adrenaline rushed through him like hot wax. He groped for the kerosene lantern, nearly spilling the chimney onto the floor with the back of his hand.
By the time he'd managed to light the lantern, Mixer's barking had turned frantic. He stood yelping at the closed door, his ears laid back, his tail swishing to and fro. Hook grabbed his shoes and slipped them on.
"Some guard dog," he said. "Come on. He can't be far."
He stepped into the cool desert air. A thumbnail moon hung low in the western sky as it made way for sunrise. Hook eased down onto the track and checked under the caboose. He'd caught many a hobo hiding under cars and had picked up more than his share of body parts because of it. Escaping from under a moving boxcar could be deceptively difficult. Even a steamer could bump forward fast enough to trap a man before he could roll out.
He spotted something lying in the bedrock, and he bent to examine it.
"Lug wrench," he said to Mixer, who waited at his side. "A goddang bo."
Hobos used lug wrenches to break the seals on boxcars or for a number of other things, including cracking someone's skull. Hobos were opportunists, half-starved coyotes who would steal the brakeman's lunch right out of his caboose if the opportunity presented itself.
"Go find him," Hook said.
Mixer spun off into the morning to work out the myriad smells that occupied his world. And when a yelp went up down line, Hook knew that Mixer had picked up the scent. Hook moved as fast as he dared in the dawn light. Ahead, the track curved off for its run into the desert. Mixer barked a series of hot yelps.
As Hook made the bend, he could see a shunting boiler with a short load sitting on the siding. The engine purred like a gigantic cat, and heat waves rose out of her stack in the morning air. The cab was empty, the engineer probably having gone to the yard office to wait clearance.
At that moment, both Hook and Mixer spotted the bo peeking from around the open door of the last boxcar. Mixer yelped and bawled and spun in a circle. Hook waited for the man's face to disappear back into the darkness of the car. He leaped across the tracks and ran along the right of way out of view of the bo. With a little luck, he could come in from behind without being spotted.
Gasping for breath, he crawled under the boxcar, and his stomach tightened. He could smell the heat of the engine drifting down line and the pungent odor of creosote. When it came to boxcar wheels and iron rails, bodies lost with some regularity.
Sunrise lit the sky in a blaze. Just then the pitched whistle of a diesel engine rose up in the distance. The shunting boiler responded with two short blasts, and sweat broke on Hook's forehead. The engineer must have been asleep in the cab while he waited on the east-bound to clear.
Hook knew that he didn't have long to make his move. As soon as the diesel cleared, the shunting boiler would pull out and drag him down line. They'd have to mail him back to Division in an envelope.
He reached for his weapon to make his move. "Damn it!" he said. He'd forgotten his weapon, and his prosthesis, and his pants.
Too late now. He reached up, grabbed the door handle, and swung his leg into the car just as the east-bound made the bend. The shunting boiler lay in on her whistle and released her brakes. Unable to pull himself up without his prosthesis, Hook hung from the doorway like a opossum in a tree.
The freighter screamed by Hook just as the shunting boiler took up slack, lurching forward. Exhausted, Hook struggled to pull himself the rest of the way in. As they gathered up speed, the bo rushed from the darkness of the boxcar and leaped over Hook's head.
Hook managed to roll in, and he turned to look back. Mixer had the bo by the sleeve, and they were locked in tug of war between the two trains. Hook considered jumping, but by then the clack of the wheels had turned to a hum. He'd just have to wait until they reached the wigwag crossing, where the train would slow.
He leaned back against the door of the boxcar to catch his breath. No man should start his day like this, but then it could have been worse. That bo had plenty of opportunity to do him in, but he hadn't. Hook hoped Mixer granted the bo the same reprieve.
The morning sun shot through the beams of the railroad trestle overhead, and birds winged through the blue as Seth Durand examined the torn sleeve of his shirt.
He had planned to be in Barstow by now, but when that unlocked caboose presented itself, he couldn't resist. He'd barely escaped with his life from that madman and his wild dog. After that, he'd waited at the edge of Needles for the next west-bound, but it turned out to be a diesel that blasted through at breakneck speed, leaving him with a face full of dirt. He hated the diesel, the way she whined and moaned, the way her whistle shot through a man like a knife. She was hard to board and even harder to ride.
So he'd camped in to wait for a hog, an old steamer with a load of freight pulling the grade, if one ever came again. But then his plans hadn't amounted to much since his discharge from Balboa in San Diego. The nightmares had dwindled in the last year, but their intensity could still lock him up like a frozen engine.
Excerpted from "The Insane Train"
Copyright © 2010 Sheldon Russell.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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