NIGHT TRAIN EXPRESS – CHAPTER ONE

night train thumb
Please enjoy a sample of my new novel NIGHT TRAIN EXPRESS
You can find a complete copy on Amazon here

ONE

ed mcginnis night train expressLate on a Saturday night in Los Angeles, breezy and humid.

1989 was three months old.

Harrington had spent the night drinking Irish whiskey with a suicidal screenwriter, an out of work session drummer and a vacationing New York call girl in a dive bar on Van Nuys Boulevard. After the third round, he’d begun pretending that he was the Bogart of In A Lonely Place. Jack Harrington had a lot of experience at pretending. It was his job.

Jack pulled into the driveway of his house now. He sat in the Maserati, listening to the radio. Decompressing. KLOS was playing the Doors’ “Strange Days”. Jack had seen the band at the Whisky on The Strip several times as a teenager: strange days, and happy days, long gone now.

The red ’69 Ghibli SS Spyder, bought off the showroom floor when Harrington was nineteen, young and flush enough to spend money without worrying about consequences, was one of the few things that remained from that time in Jack’s life.

He was renting a house at the back end of a cul de sac off Valley Vista Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The house was small, old and unremarkable. No vistas of the valley, or of much of anything else. But the place was private, secluded in a woodsy little corner of the hills that straddled and separated Westside Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The neighbors included deer, coyotes, the occasional bobcat and two adult film actresses.

A detached stone garage, rarely used, was located some fifty feet from the house. Jack preferred to leave his car parked in the driveway. As he stepped from the Ghibli and began to walk toward the house, Jack Harrington heard a odd, familiar whispering sound. The unwelcome visitor from the past reached deep into his subconscious and kicked him in the stomach.

Seconds later Jack lay on the ground, dazed and hurting. He looked on in amazement as the Ghibli, strangely intact, rose ten feet into the air in a horizontal position, as if riding an invisible magic air-carpet. The car dropped back to earth with a jarring crash. The front hood and the factory hardtop blew off, cartwheeling in different directions into the brush. Harrington ducked and covered as the windshield and windows blew out in a tinkling shower of shattered glass. Flames shot from the cockpit, lighting the black Valley night like a 4th of July fireworks spectacular.

Through ears that buzzed like a massive hive of angry bees Harrington heard a scream—his own—echo through the hills, competing with the hiss and groan of the Maserati’s expiration. A spreading wave of heat generated by the automotive funeral pyre rolled over him, slapping his face. Triggered car and burglar alarms sang out throughout the neighborhood, accompanied by a chorus of barking dogs and the faint whine of distant sirens.

Jack stood, cheeks stinging, legs wobbly. He ran, limping, to the smoking ruin of the vehicle. He reached into the jagged hole of the glove compartment, retrieving his nine millimeter Browning. Taking cover behind a stone wishing well, gun in hand, Jack scanned the immediate vicinity and beyond, mind racing faster than the Ghibli ever had.

The destruction of the Maserati, Harrington knew from having witnessed this sort of thing before, in another life far away, had nothing to do with the gas tank or with any catastrophic engine failure.

It was a bomb. Or more precisely a plastic charge.

Jack’s eyes welled with tears. He was dizzy, nauseous and disoriented, back throbbing, shirt soaked with perspiration in the cool night. Jack Harrington remained rational enough to consider the motive behind his near-death experience, the identity of his would-be executioner…

 

The attentions of Samuel Nazarian III, universally known as Snazz, were presently focused upon opposing groups of U.S. Marines and Dominican rebels.

The miniature cast iron figures, custom-made and hand painted, battled their way across the highly detailed mock-up of central Santo Domingo that occupied Nazarian’s broad desktop.

Snazz grunted and tensed, looking up with a start. A figure—neither miniature nor of cast iron–had appeared suddenly in the wide, tiled archway in front of him.

“Jesus Christ,” Snazz said, exhaling.

“Close.” Jack Harrington walked into the room, chewing on an unlit Partagas. “But no cigar.”

Nazarian said: “Out creepy-crawling Benedict Canyon again? Reliving those youthful glory days as a ‘Manson Family associate’?”

“I wasn’t exactly Tex Watson. I was just there for the dope and the girls. And I just happened to be in the neighborhood tonight.”

“Pricing properties, in the event of a miracle comeback? Don’t hold your breath. But since you’re here…” Snazz indicated the desktop battlefield with a wave of his hand. “Reenlist and join the fun. I’m recreating the U.S. police action in the Dominican in ’65. You could be dictator Juan Bosch. You already dipped into my humidor, I see. I could rustle up an appropriate uniform, complete with epaulets.”

“No thanks. I’m all grown up now. And I’m having enough trouble being myself.”

“Maybe your agent will call and you can be someone else for a week or two. Thug Number Three on Murder, She Wrote, say.”

“Speaking of murder,” Jack said as he sat down in a plush white chair. “Someone tried to kill me last night. They succeeded in killing my car. I was very fond of that car.”

“Tried to kill you?” Nazarian repeated, arching a dark eyebrow. “Doing acid again, are we?”

“The car blew up. I almost blew up too.”

“Heard about the Ghib. It made news; well…page 34 in the Times. Vehicle fire of unknown origin. No mention of any ‘explosion’. Van Nuys and Valley Bureau investigating, et cetera and ho-hum. Didn’t say anything about the owner being in the vicinity at the time. That why your face is all red? Thought maybe you had a blood pressure issue.”

“LAPD doesn’t share all the details of their cases with the media. And I’m not Joe Citizen. I didn’t need the cops to share the unnatural cause of the explosion with me. C-4. A perfect dose, perfectly placed. And who happened to be a munitions expert in his Army days? You did. Coincidentally.”

“You’re paranoid, buddy. Haven’t blown up any cars lately. Got better things to do.”

“Yeah,” Harrington said, nodding at the toy soldiers. “I can see that. And if I was gonna sell your hairy Armenian ass to the DA or the feds, I would’ve done it by now. Before I was threatened with a 90-day contempt of court gig. For refusing to talk about my former friend Sammy to a grand jury. But then I hear that you’re concerned about this and that. About me writing a book. Knowing too much about too many things. And now this ‘incident’ last night…”

Nazarian sipped twenty-five year old Macallan from a heavy Waterford crystal glass. “I’m as worried about you and that grand jury as I am about the ocean temperature in Cabo, asshole. You can’t tell them anything. You don’t know anything worth telling. Last I heard the book you were allegedly writing was a novel, not some journalistic expose. Judging by what I’ve read of your previous work? The critics will kill you—and your latest attempt at a career—before anyone else does.”

“Stop trying to have me taken out, Snazz. I’m no threat to you.”

Nazarian said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, man. And neither do you. Now if you don’t mind; I’ve got an insurrection to put down.”

“All right. If that’s the way you want to play it.”

“Play WHAT? Am I speaking Armenian here, or are you just brain dead from the drugs and alcohol?”

Harrington stood, crossing the room to a framed painting hanging on one wall. “A unicorn? You lend the dogs playing poker on black velvet to the Getty Museum?”

He flipped up the hinged painting. The unicorn had concealed a wall safe and a set of numbered buttons. Snazz looked on impassively as Jack tapped in the safe’s access code, opening it. He removed a folded extra-strength black garbage bag from a jacket pocket.

Jack began to stuff the contents of the safe into the bag. Neat, banded stacks of $100 bills. A small burlap sack cinched with a leather thong: precious gems liberated from a jewelry store on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Hot rocks cooling, to be fenced through jack-of-all-trades Snazz.

“Product on the premises? Getting careless in your old age.”

Nazarian shook his head, his right hand moving beneath the desk. “You disappoint me, Jack. Ripping off your friends. And what’s the point, really? Gonna run off to Fantasy Island, live happily ever after? De plane! De plane! Fuck that. You got a better chance of drowning in the L.A. River during an August drought.”

Jack smiled. “You were right about the Wee Willie Webber home video and merchandising. There really is a gold mine in nostalgia.”

“Everyone loves the good old days,” Snazz said. “In retrospect. Because everything looks better from a distance. Well, almost everything. Not you and my two ex-wives.”

“Only trouble is, you screwed me out of my royalties. Because that’s the kind of ‘friend’ you are.”

“Did I? Litigate, then. Everyone else does.”

“I’m not everyone else.” Jack twisted the trash bag, tying it shut. “And it looks like there is such a thing as a retirement pension for old child stars after all.”

“Maybe. If they live long enough to collect. Former child stars tend to have short, unhappy lives.”

Snazz lifted a nine-millimeter Glock 17 from beneath the desk. Jack was already pointing a U.S. Army issue .45 at him. The two men glared at one another in silence for several seconds. Finally Snazz Nazarian’s heavy, black bearded face broke into a grin.

“Appears to be a tie ballgame, Jackie. The old Mexican Standoff. Or is that ‘racially insensitive’ now?”

“Use it or put it away,” Jack said.

Snazz shrugged. He carefully placed his Glock on the desktop in front of him, just west of Santo Domingo. A pacifistic and conciliatory gesture…if Nazarian hadn’t already transferred a four-shot Derringer from his pocket to the palm of his left hand.

Jack lowered the Colt. Very briefly. Then, grasping the automatic by the barrel, he tossed the gun end over end, a .45 caliber steel tomahawk, at Nazarian’s forehead. It was a trick that Jack, one-time star Little League pitcher, had picked up from an old Marine sergeant major in a Saigon bar. He’d perfected the technique in a number of other bars since. L.A. could be a tough town; a lot of cancellations.

Nazarian’s dark eyes drifted in and out of focus. He slumped to the right, tumbling from his chair onto the terra cotta floor. Blood from the cut and rapidly developing knot in the middle of Snazz’s forehead trickled onto the collar of his black silk pajamas.

Harrington picked up the garbage bag. He walked over to check on the motionless Nazarian’s pulse. Snazz was fine, relatively speaking. He’d have one hell of a headache. And he would most likely be angry and unhappy. But then, that was Snazz’s problem.

For the moment, at least.

Jack left Nazarian’s house, walking through the breezy Benedict Canyon night toward a rental car parked in the driveway. He didn’t notice the figure in dark clothing pressed against a wall behind a hedge, a small machine gun topped with a sound suppressor in hand.

The dark-clad figure noticed the visitor, familiar-looking somehow. Considered taking him out, but didn’t. An unnecessary complication. And who needed those, really?

 

Wonderland Villa consisted of a half-dozen Spanish-style buildings sheltered behind high walls of blue stucco. The Villa might have been an elegant resort hotel or the campus of a small and expensive private college. It was actually a ‘long-term managed care facility’, otherwise known as a nursing home.

The glorified nursing home was located off Wonderland Avenue in Los Angeles’ rustic Laurel Canyon district, high above Sunset Boulevard. The lights of the L.A. Basin twinkled like the stars of an inverted galaxy far below the meticulously maintained grounds.
On this warm early spring evening a light wind waltzed through the canyon, carrying with it the muted sounds of traffic on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, along with the plaintive wail of a coyote.

In a third floor suite inside Hacienda A, the frail white haired man—known presently as Timothy Jeffcoat Sayles—hobbled about with the aid of a cane. Muttering to himself, he passed a table on top of which had been placed an old framed photograph, taken in 1970: the year that ‘Mr. Sayles’ had died and been reborn.
It was a posed all-American Sears family portrait, the Sears colors fading now. The clothing and hairstyles of the man, woman and two children in the photo appeared vaguely ridiculous, twenty years down a serpentine road. ‘Mr. Sayles’, however, noticed none of these things. He was beyond that.

He rooted beneath the sofa, discovering an old US Army canteen with a stained canvas cover. He cackled triumphantly, all but falling into a chair, the one-quart canteen clutched tightly in his right hand. Sayles unscrewed the cap. He sipped Jack Daniel’s with a contented grunt, tongue retrieving some of the smoky bourbon spilled upon his lips.

With some difficulty, hand trembling, the old man employed a remote control to bring the television to life. He scanned through the channels, so many of them now and still not a goddamn thing worth watching. Sayles let arthritic fingers do the walking through brief snippets of commercials and infomercials, through old movies and classic sitcoms.
One of the latter was dimly familiar, a purported comedy featuring a smarmy, precocious child actor that the old man had never been able to abide. Jack something or other. Sayles quickly changed the channel, and good riddance.

The old man’s face contorted suddenly, his right eye twitching as he stared at what, who, had appeared on the television screen now. Them. The ones responsible for what he had become, what he had been reduced to. His mouth fell open, saliva dribbling onto a white-stubbled chin. He closed his eyes, emitting an odd, labored humming sound.

Timothy Sayles glanced down at the canteen, remembering jungles defoliated by Agent Orange during Operation Ranch Hand, remembering blood in the sand and the tall white hotel in Saigon. Sayles had served his time in hell. He had, he decided, more than paid for his crimes. Blind in one eye. Largely deaf. Had no idea what day it was. Wasn’t certain of the identity of this new pansy-ass president, but didn’t like him as much as the previous commander in chief, the actor that talked tough and called his wife ‘Mommy.’

Sayles’ diet consisted largely of strained, flavorless fruits and vegetables, mashed potatoes, broth, ice cream and limp, starchy cereals. Fat women smelling of body odor and cigarettes and gossipy sissy boys in green uniforms bathed him. They changed his stinky baby pants, talking about him as if he wasn’t even there. But then, he wasn’t there, was he? No, not all there. Hadn’t been for a long time.

Not since the men on the television screen, the comedians, had come for him in the night. Had played their little joke, had thrown him to the wolves and into a wind that smelled of bougainvillea and the flesh of burning dogs.

He stood, finding the screwdriver that he’d stolen from a carpenter’s toolbox a week earlier and had concealed. He, not THEM, would have the last laugh. Mr. Sayles’ parole, his freedom, was now both at hand and in hand…

Midnight in Wonderland.

Two nurses, several attendants and a security guard were gathered around a ground floor nurse’s station in Hacienda A, an island of light and activity at the junction of three silent, darkened corridors. The employees sipped coffee, watching a Lakers-Sixers game from Philly on a small television.

The familiar muted, slow motion rhythms common to a midweek third shift at Wonderland Villa were abruptly shattered. From an undetermined point behind Hacienda A came the sound of what might have been an explosion.
The crew at the nurse’s station tensed. Several ducked instinctively, wincing. The group stared at one another in stunned and confused silence before rushing en masse toward the back door.

Outside it took the staff members several moments to comprehend what they were seeing, even longer to understand exactly what had happened.
Something had plunged through the glass roof of a screened pavilion, destroying the roof and a table inside, toppling chairs. The staffers moved closer. ‘Something’ was in fact ‘someone’: Mr. Sayles, a.k.a. ‘317’, his body face down and motionless among bloody splinters of glass on the cement floor.

Neck twisted at a grotesque and certainly fatal angle, Mr. Sayles gripped a screwdriver in his right hand. The impact had driven the point of the screwdriver through his right eye, the socket now vacant.

The security guard threw up all over his new boots. A nurse screamed. Another nurse crossed herself. She rushed inside to call for paramedics and police, and to contact the medical examiner, the facility director…and the attorneys.

One attendant pointed up at the lighted third floor window from which Mr. Sayles had journeyed. The security bars had been removed, apparently by Mr. Sayles himself. Curtains danced in the open window as quiet returned once again to Wonderland.

Inside Hacienda A, two male attendants entered Mr. Sayles’ suite. One of the men picked up the TV remote. The other attendant retrieved the canteen filled with bourbon. Going out of business Sayles wouldn’t need it.

The two men glanced at the television. They began to laugh. “I loved this one when I was a kid,” the older of the two said. “Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. A classic.”

The younger attendant nodded, quickly becoming absorbed in the intricacies of the plot. “Look…Dracula about to get his ass beat by the Wolf Man. That is some funny shit.”

“Guess old man Sayles wasn’t an Abbott and Costello fan. Or maybe he thought that ‘S’ on his bathrobe stood for Superman.”

The men passed the late Mr. Sayles’ canteen back and forth, watching as Dracula transformed himself into a bat onscreen. But there would be no escape from the Wolf Man, from the script or from fate.

The man most recently known as Timothy Jeffcoat Sayles had also been transformed, if not from vampire to bat. On this night he had experienced one brief, fatal moment of lucidity. Had realized that one can never quite run far enough, or fast enough, to escape the relentless posse of his own past. A pursuit that leaps across borders of geography and time, of conscious denial.

‘Timothy Sayles’ had lived by the sword. Or, more precisely, by its somewhat less civilized if more efficient modern day successor, the gun. Sayles, however, didn’t die by gun or sword or at the hands of the Wolf Man.

He simply watched too much television.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *