Two men, one shaved bald, tall, thin and quick like a whip and the other a fireplug on legs with a jet black ponytail halfway down his broad back, both in tailored, navy-blue pinstripe suits and wearing hand-made, alligator-skin shoes so polished they reflected the lights marking the aisle, made their way from the locomotive through the tender to the back of the train. The whip would walk a few long, waspish steps, wait, then spin the gold and diamond pinky ring on his right hand until the fireplug caught up. When the fireplug reached him the whip would walk a few more long, waspish steps, wait and spin his ring again.
The fireplug strolled, his hands clasped in front of his chest as if in prayer, his eyes skimming over his knuckles as they evaluated, the bands of the two turquoise rings he wore — one on each ring finger — clicking sometimes as he walked. He passed no one without reaching out to their carotid and checking for a pulse; conductors, stewards, clerks, passengers. It didn’t matter.
The fireplug’s slow methodicity and attention to detail frustrated the whip who released his frustration by aiming a small but powerful ruby laser into the lens of the security cameras while he waited for his partner to catch up.
“Christ, look at this place. What did Pangiosi use again?”
“Ambien. That’s what he had us dump in the food service trucks. It makes you sleep and wake up without feeling groggy. ‘Far as everyone on the train is concerned, they’ll all think they probably had too much to drink.”
“Do you have to test every mother’s son?” The whip broke protocol and used names in an attempt to make the fireplug move faster. “We’re supposed to get McPherson to Pangiosi before morning, you know.”
The fireplug stopped and stared at the whip who turned away before the fireplug answered. “We have plenty of time. Besides, we find one dead person, we got trouble.”
“Didn’t you tell me once something about your grandfather teaching you to help people die?”
The fireplug nodded as he worked. “Not exactly. He taught me to sing them from this world to the next, to carry the souls of the dead so they’d find peace.”
“Happy hunting ground stuff?”
“Something like that.”
“You believe in that stuff?”
“I don’t believe in much of anything anymore.”
“Yeah. Ditto that.”
The fireplug continued his slow inspection. The whip tapped his foot at the rear door to the car.
The fireplug stopped and looked up. “I wonder if these people dream.”
The whip broke protocol a second time. “John, who gives a shit. Pangiosi gave us an order. We carry it out.”
John stopped. His arms folded over an expansive chest.
The whip looked out a window and spun his gold and diamond pinky ring. “Sorry.”
John’s prayerful hands went back to work.
Shem twitched himself awake. His head rose up and he sniffed the air. A scent, something from deep dog memory, canine memory, canid memory, canis memory. He leapt off the bunk and growled. A door opened in the bedroom suite, a door only dogs, only canines, only the line that first walked before man then behind then beside could see, sworn under the first full moon to watch for such doors because humans, the canids knew, would grow to forget.
The door closed. Whatever had been there had been warned away by flashing eyes, by baring teeth.
He jumped back on the bunk. As he circled to lay down he remembered the Little Master had gone. He looked across the suite to the other cot. The Great Master snored lazily like an old Alpha in the tall grass on a hot summer day.
Shem scratched his ear with a hind paw then sniffed his genitals. He rested his head over his paws, flopped to his side and stretched on the mattress. The entire bed was his!
A few minutes later he, like the Great Master, snored like an Alpha in the tall grass.