Free Reads

Mystery on the Autumn Train

By C.L. Exline

The old-fashioned door bell jangled as Sheryl Locke Holmes entered her antique shop, Homes by Holmes and Watson. “Dot! Dot!”

Dot Watson stepped out of her office and watched Sheryl weave in and out of the antiques. “Are you packed?”

“Yep. Explain to me again how it’s more cost effective to ride a train to check out antiques?”

“Elementary, my dear Holmes.” Dot giggled when Sheryl rolled her eyes. “Because I found us a great deal. With the work van in the shop and we need to make such a long trip to check out those antiques, why not do it in style? We’ll ride on a vintage train with all the comfort we could want and enjoy the scenery. Perfect time of year to see the fall foliage. No heat or bugs to contend with and it’ll be a mini vacation for us.”

“I’m not sure how cheap that is compared to us renting a moving truck.”

“Trust me, it is. We better get on the road. The train pulls out in ninety minutes.”

Sheryl eyed Dot for a moment, then nodded. “Let’s go. I could use a mini vacation.”

“I’ve printed out spec sheets for you to go over while we travel.”

“Oh, that’s what you meant by ‘mini’ vacation.”

“Look at it this way, no arguing over why we should use the GPS instead of a map or why the laptop is necessary or the cell phone. We’ll basically be technology free.”

“Now that was your selling point, you should have started with that explanation.” Sheryl laughed at the expression on Dot’s face.

**

“Wow!” Dot said once they stepped on board. “This train looks like it’s right out of a movie.”

“It sure does.” Sheryl said. “Talk about stepping back in time. I’m expecting to see Clark Gable or Cary Grant.” Dot and Sheryl were standing in the lounge car. The interior was right out of a 1940s classic movie. The light from etched glass sconces flickered upon glossy wood panels. Fresh Flowers in crystal vases along with vintage magazines adorned table tops. Plush velvet chairs surrounded a baby grand piano. Sheryl was going to love this trip.

“I’ll make sure our luggage is in our sleeper,” Dot said.

“How many nights are we going to be staying?”

“Three. But we’ll have stops and can explore some of the antique shops along the way.” Dot took a step, stopped and handed a manila envelope to Sheryl. “Inside are the list of antiques we need for the shop and a list of what our customers requested. Plus I added some of the brochures about the train. Get comfy and I’ll be back.”

Sheryl found a seat by a window. She removed the items from the envelope but watched the passengers outside waiting in line to hand over their tickets. There were several women chatting in a group. Behind them was an elderly couple, followed by a woman with a young girl. A rather tall, lanky man wearing a black top coat, scarf and black leather cap stood behind them. He pulled a pocket watch out of his vest pocket to check the time. His lips pursed as he snapped the watch case shut before he turned to glare to his right, then to his left. Apparently his traveling companion was running late. At the rear stood a man and woman who clung to each other and every so often he would sneak kisses and she would blush. Newlyweds?

“Care for something to drink, miss?” said a deep voice.

Startled, she looked up. The tall gentleman, slender and mature, was dressed in a black tux sporting a red carnation. He wore white gloves. “Yes, thank you. An iced tea with lemon would be lovely.”

“Very good, miss.” He turned on his heel. Moments later he returned with a tall glass of iced tea.

“Thank you, uh?”

“Maurice. My name is Maurice and I’ll attend to your needs here in the lounge and in the dining car.”

“My name is Sheryl Holmes.” She thought his eyebrow quivered but she couldn’t be sure. Just in case he recognized her name, she added, “I’m on a small vacation with my business partner searching for antiques.”

“Let me know if you need anything, Miss Holmes.” He left.

The sun beamed bright and the heat warmed Sheryl enough that she slid open the window a bit and half-listened to the voices outside on the platform. She glanced out in time to notice the elderly couple presenting tickets. They didn’t climb aboard. Instead, he pulled her to the side of the train, close to Sheryl’s window.

“What’s wrong with you?” the man said.

“I feel like I’m choking.”

“Nonsense, dear.”

Sheryl peeked. The woman fidgeted with the sage green printed silk scarf that appeared to be wrapped around her neck several times. The man patted her back.

“Can’t I remove all of this?” she said and tugged at her throat.

“No, safer where it is.”

“I feel weighed down.”

“Nonsense. The scarf adds the perfect touch.”

A voice interrupted her eavesdropping.

“Oh, Maurice, did you say something?”

“Would you care for a refill?”

The glass was empty, nothing was in it but the long silver tea spoon. Sheryl was stunned. She didn’t recall drinking a drop. “Yes, please.”

When he returned with the iced tea, he asked, “Is something wrong on the platform, Miss Holmes? You seem studying something out there.”

“No, nothing is wrong. Since I’m in the antique business, I couldn’t help but take in my surroundings. The train depot looks vintage. Do you know if it is the original station?”

“I wouldn’t know, miss. Since most things that are called antique or vintage nowadays were around when I was little, I wouldn’t have a clue.”

She smiled and nodded. “How long have you worked on the train?”

“Almost five years. Ever since my Esther passed on.” He sighed.

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Everything in our home reminded me of the dear woman, so I had to get away. This job is perfect for that. Get to travel a lot. If that’ll be all?” He hesitated.

“When do we pull out?”

Maurice brought up his left arm and with his right thumb and forefinger, pushed a button on his wrist watch. “In twenty minutes. Our Conductor Fred Wilson will sound the whistle and announce ‘all aboard’ and another whistle blast follows, then we will depart. Town residents and patrons expect the gesture. Gives the illusion of how it once was around here.”

“Interesting watch.”

“The lighting in here is ofttimes dim and my eyes are old.” With a curt nod, he moved on to the next table.

When Sheryl glanced out the window, everyone was gone and she returned her attention to the train brochures. Minutes later she heard the whistle, the conductor’s shout and finally the last blast before the train chugged away from the station.

“Here’s the local newspaper.” Dot dropped the paper on the table and sat down. “Our accommodations are great. Small but very nice. At least we have a private bathroom or water closet as the maid called the facility.”

“Maid?” Sheryl gaped at her.

“Yep. Clara will make sure we have plenty towels, soap or whatever toiletries we need. She even brings us fresh flowers. Tonight while we’re in the dining car, she’ll turn down our beds for us and leave a mint.”

“And all of this is cost effective?” Sheryl gestured around them with her hand.

“We’re the winners in this deal.” Dot grinned.

“Uh huh. Here comes Maurice. He’s our server. Want an iced tea?”

“What time do we eat? I’m starved.”

“Would you care for something to drink, Miss Watson?”

“I’d love an iced tea. No lemon. What time do we eat?”

Again, Maurice checked his watch. “The dining car opens in an hour and exactly fifteen minutes. Last call for meals is around one or two o’clock. The time depends on how many passengers we are carrying. I’d say one o’clock will be it for this trip. The lounge remains open all evening and features an open bar with bartender. Both cars will have snack items and beverages.”

“Forget the iced tea, I’ve got to check something, I’ll be right back.” Dot jumped up from the table.

Sheryl picked up the newspaper. “Thieves run rampant,” the headline read. Items were missing from various department stores, jewelry stores, and specialty stores. No one knew how anything was stolen since the clerks had to get the missing item out of display cases. Yet a solid gold cigarette lighter vanished, a silver flask, diamond earrings, ruby brooch, emerald pendant, ivory picture frame, a strand of pearls and the list continued. Sheryl read the detailed description of the stolen goods plus employee interviews and opinions stating they believed the culprits were a young athletic couple who talked nonstop about biking, hiking and rock climbing. Except descriptions varied: redheads, blondes and jet black hair to wearing glasses versus no glasses. She frowned. If it weren’t for the train journey, she’d stay and solve the case.


**

“This dining car is right out of the early 1900s. Look there are place cards with engraved names,” Sheryl said, while trying to gawk at everything. The tables were covered with the finest linen tablecloths she’d ever touched. Crystal glassware sparkled. China place settings and top grade silverware with ivory handles were ready for the diners. The table lamps had stained glass shades that resembled something from Tiffany’s. The larger tables had small chandeliers hanging overhead.

Dot spotted their names. “Here’s the table where we sit.” An elegant table for two awaited them.

“We’re going to be in hock for years to pay this bill. My husband will kill me.” Sheryl looked around, then focused on Dot. “No, he’s going to kill you.”

“Pish tosh.” Dot picked up the menu. “Look at these selections. I may never leave.”

“They might not let us go. You might have to stay to wash dishes—forever ”

Dot snorted.

Sheryl noticed everyone she’d spotted on the platform was already seated, wearing their coats. “Looks like you’re not the only one hungry.” She shivered and realized why everyone was dressed like they were. “Do you think it’s cold in here?”

“Yes, I do.” Dot stood. “I’ll get our jackets.”

“Thanks, but I can get them.”

“Nope, you stay.” Dot rushed off. “I don’t want you to miss a thing.”

“Iced tea, Miss Holmes?” Maurice asked.

“No, thanks, Maurice. Coffee, please. Why is it so cold in here?”

“A malfunction with the heating unit. If one of our personnel can’t fix it, we’ll have to stop in the next town for repairs.” He frowned.

Although there was a chill in the air, spirits were high. As the evening progressed, Sheryl and Dot chatted with their fellow travelers. The excellent food certainly helped as did the free flowing wine.

The elderly couple were Edith and Harold Brummel. Edith’s glasses were perched on her nose as she read over a wine list.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Brummel, I’m Sheryl Holmes.”

The woman put down the list and placed her glasses on top. “Lovely meeting you, honey. So many wines to select from. I want to try something sweet and not so tangy.”

“Let me suggest something for you.” Sheryl picked up the glasses and skimmed the list and pointed. “Port. Sweet and fruity, makes an excellent dessert wine.”

“Perfect. Thank you, dear.”

The tall guy who had yet to remove his leather cap was Arthur Henning and not talkative. Since he was alone, Sheryl wanted to say something. “Nice pocket watch, Mr. Henning.”

“What? Oh the time.” He pulled out his watch and flipped open the case. “There’s the time.”

“Thanks, Mr. Henning.” Apparently the man was still angry that his companion didn’t show.

The newlyweds who fed each other between kisses were Sissy and Brad Short and wrapped up in themselves. Sheryl said hello and left. The rest of the passengers blurred together. She joined Dot back at their table.

“I don’t know about you,” Dot said. “But I’m exhausted and ready to turn in.”

“Me too. Right behind you. If I have more coffee, I’ll float to bed.”

“Didn’t you have wine? I saw you carrying a goblet.”

“Decided to stick to club soda.”

In no time the two women were bathed and settled. Lights out. The steady rhythm of the clickety-clack relaxed Sheryl as she snuggled under the covers ready for dreamland. Instead an annoying noise soon filled in the room. Sheryl sat up and contemplated murder. Dot’s snoring sounded like a buzz saw. The digital clock read eleven twenty. Quietly as possible, Sheryl dressed and made her way to the dining car, which by now had dimmed lights. The romantic atmosphere was lost on her. Maurice appeared out of nowhere.

“Something wrong, Miss Holmes?”

“Yes. My bunk mate snores. It was either murder her or leave.”

He chuckled. “Wise decision. Use this table. Coffee?”

“Why is it so dark in here?”

“We’re having issues with the lighting. I can get you a candle if you want.”

“Please and yes to a cup of coffee. I shouldn’t but I have to ask, do you have anything to snack on?”

“Hmmmm how about cookies? We have a large selection.”

She shook her head.

“Pumpkin pie?”

“No. Thanks anyway.”

“Lemon cake?”

“Oh yes!”

“Coming right up.”

Sheryl enjoyed the coffee and cake. The Brummels sat at a nearby table whispering to each other. At another table was Henning still wearing his cap drumming his fingers on the table. There were a couple of other people sipping coffee and talking. Voices remained low and matched the ambiance. The hallway between the dining car and lounge and the other sleeper cars had several dark patches. If this were the city and those were alleys, Sheryl would be concerned that thugs were lurking.

Glad she’d brought something to read to occupy herself, she picked up the train brochures. The candle gave enough illumination to see the words, not that it mattered. Sheryl was reading the room.

Mrs. Brummel got up and walked down the dark hallway, then returned. Mr. Brummel left. Mr. Henning left. Mr. Brummel returned and squeezed his wife’s shoulder. Sheryl noticed a silhouette hovering in the hall. There was enough light to distinguish he wore a long coat and a cap. She saw movement and could tell he was checking the time on his watch before he moved further away. Her attention returned to the brochure.

“What are you doing?”

Sheryl looked up at Dot. “Marveling at my restraint in not strangling you.”

“Strangle me? Why?”

“You snore!”

“I do not!”

“Ha!”

“What were you eating?” Dot peered at the plate on the table.

“Lemon cake.”

Dot’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.

Before Sheryl could say a word, Maurice appeared with a carafe and another coffee cup.

“Thanks, Maurice. Could you bring another piece of lemon cake for my companion?”

“Of course, Miss Holmes. I’ll start a fresh pot of coffee and get more cake from the kitchen. Will that be all?”

“Uh, well, could you bring me another piece, just a sliver?” Sheryl held up hand with her thumb and forefinger indicating the size, which moved from a half-inch to over three inches.

He smiled. “Will do.”

“I love lemon cake,” Dot said. “And I do not snore.”

“You didn’t in a our college days, but now it’s buzz saw city.”

“I’m glad we’re up. Isn’t this place romantic?”

“Most definitely.”

“Besides the autumn run, the train goes out during Valentine week, weather permitting, and again during June for newlyweds.”

“Guess our newlyweds couldn’t wait until June.”

“That couple was certainly enjoying each other during dinner,” Dot said and grinned.

“They were not social at all.” The two women giggled. Sheryl heard a clang and turned to look in the direction of the noise when a woman’s scream broke the quietness. Sheryl jumped to her feet and peered into the hallway. She could make out a staggering female figure.

“That was my wife!” Mr. Brummel shouted. “I know that’s her.”

Sheryl hurried toward the female only to have Mr. Brummel stumble and fall into her. “Mr. Brummel, please, you need to sit down.” Sheryl held onto his arm and moved the man out of the way. “Dot, help him to a chair.”

Before Sheryl took another step, Mrs. Brummel rushed into the room, “I’ve been mugged!”

“Mugged? Here?” Sheryl shook her head. “Never mind that, Mrs. Brummel, what was taken? Did you see the mugger?”

“It was that.... that....” Mrs. Brummel’s hand flailed through the air. “That hat wearing guy. That tall thin man. You know, you saw him. He was in the hallway waiting for me.”

“Yes, I saw him or I should say I’m seeing him.”

Mr. Henning entered the dining car with the conductor right behind him.

“There he is!” Mrs. Brummel shrieked. “Arrest him.”

Mr. Henning turned to look at the conductor who looked right back at him, both men clearly puzzled.

“What happened, Miss Holmes?” Maurice joined Sheryl.

“I believe the game’s afoot.”

“What?”

“Stay near me, Maurice, I may need your assistance.”

“Of course, Miss Holmes.”

People crawled out of the woodwork and the sound level was deafening or so it seemed to Sheryl. “Please everyone, let’s quiet down and have a seat.”

Once it was a low roar, Sheryl said, “Mrs. Brummel, please explain what happened.”

“Why should she explain anything to you, young woman?” Mr. Brummel asked.

“Because this is THE great Sheryl Locke Holmes and she’s also a police officer from Millstone,” Dot said. “You couldn’t have a better investigator. Go ahead, Sheryl.”

“Dot!” Sheryl was aghast at the statement.

“Continue, Miss Holmes,” Conductor Wilson said.

“Thank you, sir. First, we need some light.”

“As I told you, Miss Holmes, there is something wrong with the lighting,” Maurice said.

“Let me check.” Sheryl went behind the serving counter, knelt and moved some glasses. She spotted a metal box, opened the cover, and turned a knob. The lights brightened.

Everyone clapped.

“How did you know what to do, Sheryl?” Dot asked.

Sheryl winked and turned to the older woman. “Now, Mrs. Brummel, please tell me what happened.”

“Well, uh, I was in the hallway when that man accosted me.” She pointed at Mr. Henning.

“Madam, I never touched you.” Mr. Henning glared at Mrs. Brummel.

“It’s okay, Mr. Henning, please remain seated,” Sheryl said. “Mrs. Brummel show me where you were when the incident occurred.”

The woman led Sheryl down the hallway. Sheryl spotted the scarf and picked it up. “Am I to assume that this is the spot?”

“Yes. That hateful young man practically choked me when he yanked my necklace from my throat.”

“I did not!”

“What was stolen?”

“An antique pearl necklace. It belonged to my mother.” Mrs. Brummel held the scarf against her mouth and sniffled.

Sheryl shone her flashlight up and down the hall. “Thank you. Okay, why don’t you sit down and relax. Dot, will you help her to a seat and keep an eye on her?”

“Mrs. Brummel.” Dot escorted the woman over to her husband.

“Sheryl, do you know where the necklace is?” the conductor asked.

“Yes, sir, I know who stole the necklace, who hid it and where it’s hidden.”

“I better get security,” Maurice said.

“No, I need you with me,” Sheryl said.

“Are you saying there are two people involved?”

“Let’s clear out the area and have all of the passengers return to their rooms or to the lounge car, except for the Brummels and Mr. Henning.”

“Very well.” The conductor nodded. “Listen up, everyone please return to your sleeping accommodations or the lounge.”

“But we want to know what’s going on,” said one woman.

“And you will, but first we need to finish our questioning. My assistant, Robert, will help you get settled. Robert, be sure they get whatever they want. If you need help, wake a crew member.”

“Yes sir.” The man ushered everyone out of the dining car.

“Miss Holmes, please continue. Are we searching for two people?”

“Let’s sit down and discuss this rationally.” Sheryl sat next to Mrs. Brummel and patted the woman’s hand. Once everyone was seated, she continued, “No, Conductor Wilson, actually three people are involved. The Brummels stole the necklace and several other items.”

“We did not!” Mr. Brummel jumped to his feet.

“Sit down, sir, before I help you sit.” The conductor stood next to the man.

“Sheryl, they are senior citizens,” Dot said.

“Not exactly.”

“What?”

Sheryl stood and grabbed a handful of Mrs. Brummel’s hair. The wig came off.

“I’ll sue you!” Mrs. Brummel grabbed her head.

“A wig?”

“It’s part of the illusion. Just like the ambiance on the train. I noticed earlier her reading glasses were nothing more than plain glass. When I rubbed her hand a few minutes ago, her age spots came off. That’s why no one could find the thieves. They went from a young couple to senior citizen status and remained under the radar.”

Mrs. Brummel glanced at her hands and glared at Sheryl. “Humph! Doesn’t prove a thing. Search our room, you won’t find anything that isn’t ours.”

“Oh, I’m sure we won’t—now. You’ve been busy stashing the goods all over the train. Those robberies I read about in the local newspaper stated that small items were stolen, each piece easy to hide. Then you two exit the train at some predetermined stop. If you were ever stopped and searched when you leave, you both are clean. Then at the end of the line, your accomplice gathers the items while he’s cleaning the cars, doing his job. He’ll later pawn them. If an item is found by a passenger or personnel, the piece would be turned into Lost and Found. Since people lose things all the time, no one would think anything of it. Your accomplice would later retrieve the item if possible. Except this time, my being on board spooked one of you three. Which is why the elaborate mugger story.”

“I was mugged! That crook stole my pearls.” Mrs. Brummel glared at Mr. Henning.

Robert returned and whispered to the conductor.

“Mrs. Brummel, Mr. Henning’s compartment was just searched and nothing was found.”

“I told you I didn’t steal your old piece of junk.”

“Of course they didn’t find anything, you got rid of the evidence.” Mrs. Brummel smirked.

“Where’s the necklace, Sheryl?” Dot asked.

Sheryl glanced around and spotted a metal dome lid on a serving platter—the clang she’d heard earlier. She lifted the lid and nestled in the leaves of lettuce was the pearl necklace. She dangled the item from her finger. “If Mr. Henning had truly yanked a strand of pearls from around Mrs. Brummel’s neck, the necklace would have snapped and pearls would have scattered. As you can see, the pearls are intact and the clasp unharmed.”

“Humph!” Mrs. Brummel snorted.

“Who is their accomplice?”

“For my next trick...” From under the counter, Sheryl withdrew and held up a coat and cap. “As you can see, Mr. Henning is still wearing his coat and cap. So he is not our perp.”

“Who is their accomplice?”

“The same person who dimmed the lights and who claimed the heating unit was on the fritz. The Brummels’ accomplice kept it cold in here so his fall guy would remain wearing his top coat and leather cap. His actions were like that of a magician. He was trying to get us to focus on one person when we should have been looking at another. The mugging was another illusion so we’d think Mr. Henning was the thief, hopefully arrest him and it would be over. In fact I was seated at a particular table to witness the tall thin man lingering in the hallway. I’m not one bit happy to have to say the name of the person who could wear this getup—Maurice. He’s the fence and their accomplice.”

The noise level rose. 

“Robert, let’s get these three locked up. Next stop isn’t for another hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

The conductor and Robert led the Brummels and Maurice away.

Sheryl and Dot watched them leave.

“How did you know it was Maurice?” Dot asked.

“I saw him checking his watch in the hallway.”

“It was dark, how could you know for sure it was him?”

“His watch dial lights up, I saw the blue glow. Mr. Henning uses a pocket watch and it doesn’t glow. I checked earlier during my short talk with him.”

“How did you know about the dimmed lights?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson, the brochure you gave me. Earlier when you mentioned about the June train ride for newlyweds, I remembered reading a blurb about dimming the lights for the lovers, making it a romantic outing and a great start for a honeymoon.”

“How did you zero in on the Brummels and not our newlyweds?”

“Besides the obvious, the newlweds didn't know any of us were on the train, I overheard the Brummels talking before they boarded the train. She was complaining about the thing around her neck being heavy. A scarf doesn’t weigh anything, but several necklaces would weigh a lot. In the newspaper you gave me, I read details of the stolen goods. Numerous pendants were listed. So, it fits.” Sheryl leaned back in her chair. “Dot, you pulled a fast one on me. Why did you trick me into solving this case, why? How did you know the train was involved?”

“I didn’t know anything. My Uncle Paul is on the force and is a close friend of the conductor. The local police thought the train was the means of transporting the goods out of the city, since nothing ever turned up in area pawn shops, but miles away. Except they couldn’t find a connection. None of the stores’ security footage had the same people in the stores. Everyone working on the train was checked numerous times. Even the passengers, but zilch. Uncle Paul asked me if you could help and I said we would solve the case for a free ride.”

“Lucky guess.”

“Not a guess. I knew you’d do it.” Dot grinned. “After all, you are the great Sheryl Locke Holmes.”

“Let’s say, I like that illusion, but let’s keep it to ourselves.” Sheryl laughed and her best friend joined her.

The whistle shrilled and the train chugged along to the next stop.

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