AmTrak. Their motto ought to be, “Relax. You’ll get there eventually.”
The train was over an hour late, due to “signal problems” up the line, they said. Last time it was “switch problems”. It could’ve been bandits wearing sombreros and crossed cartridge belts blocking the tracks with a fiery barricade for all I knew. For all AmTrak knew.
It was cold and damp on the station platform and a thick white fog had settled in; I felt like the lone argyle in a drawer full of white socks. Through the cloudy veil from the direction of the ticket window came the “tic-toc” sound of Sheila’s purposeful, high-heeled gait.
“Ok, Paco. The station attendant’s been in touch with the dispatcher, and the train ought to arrive in a couple of minutes.”
“Thanks for checking.” I was restless and shifted from one foot to the other. “Sheila, I don’t feel right about this. Blowing town, I mean.” I had recently helped the FBI to capture a particularly slippery Muslim terrorist, who had escaped so often from Gitmo that he might as well have had a regular week-end furlough. He had gotten away again and the word on the street was that he planned to assemble a gang to take revenge. The FBI had advised us to get out of town for awhile. I had some business in Miami, and Sheila was going to drive to her mother’s house for a week or so.
“Don’t be silly, Paco. It’s just for a few days, until Smedley and his boys from the FBI can stake out the office and pick those guys up. You’re always doing their work for them; let them do what they’re paid to do this time.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like the idea of running away.”
“Oh . . . stuff and nonsense!”
“ ‘Stuff and nonsense?’ You been reading those British mysteries again? Sheila, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, we do the hardboiled stuff. We don’t do country houses and dukes drowned in duck ponds and poisoned scones. I don’t even know what a ‘scone’ is!”
“What makes you think I have time to read British mysteries? And incidentally, a scone is a rich, biscuit-like pastry”. She reached up and straightened the knot in my tie. There wasn’t much she could do about the one in my throat. There was no denying it: I’d miss her.
She looked up at me with those twin aquamarine-tinted windows on her soul. Her eyes grew misty, welling up with tears. Poor kid, I thought. Must be allergies.
“You never told me what this so-called ‘business’ in Miami was about, Paco, but I can read a map. Miami isn’t very far from Cuba. You’re going to try and catch those clowns, yourself, before they leave Florida, aren’t you?”
I couldn’t lie to her. Oh, I can tell whoppers with the best of ‘em. But not to Sheila. Somehow, she just wasn’t the kind of girl you lied to; though maybe I could stretch the truth a little.
“Baby, I don’t even know where those guys are.” Which was true; although Haroun’s House of Hummus was probably a good place to start looking. “I’ll be careful.”
She gave me a weak smile. “Maybe you ought to take Bogan with you.”
I laughed. “Are you kidding? They’d put me off the train before I got to Kissimmee.”
Suddenly, she stood on tiptoe and gave me a peck on the cheek.
I must have looked startled, because she said, “Well, you asked for it.”
“You said ‘kiss me’.”
Like an idiot, I was about to explain that I had named a town in Florida, not invited a bus on the jaw, but I stopped myself in the nick of time. The horn on the train sounded; the Silver Slug was oozing into the station.
As the train stopped, the conductor jumped off. He did the typical AmTrak security check: he eyeballed the passengers quickly to make sure nobody was carrying an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, or cradling a spherical canister with a long fuse and the word ‘BOMB’ stenciled on it. Then he shouted, “Booo-ARD!”
My eyes met Sheila’s one last time. A tear rolled down her cheek. I said what any man would have said at a time like this.
“Better get yourself some antihistamines, dollface.”
To my surprise, she thumped me on the arm – hard – and said, “You’ll miss your train, you big palooka. Better go.”
I climbed aboard and the wheels squealed and the train rolled off into the night. I stood for a moment in the vestibule of the last car, staring out the back window at Sheila’s shapely silhouette, still lingering on the platform. Funny, I thought. I never noticed before that she had allergies.