A train whistle shrieks through the crisp fall Pennsylvania night, the full moon drenching the woods around the rumbling train with a silvery light. In the train’s dining car, a motley group of passengers sits in the booths, their eyes all focused on one person: a tall, thin man in a pinstripe suit, a boyish face under unkempt ginger hair. The man paces back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back. This is Wainwright Davis, investigator for hire, and while he appears to the passengers to be lost in thought, his thoughts are never lost but always on a focused, singular path.
He stops abruptly and turns around on his heels, looking each passenger in the eyes before he says, “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here tonight.” Before anyone can answer, he adds, “Obviously you know why I’ve asked you here, but I suppose you’re all wondering why now. Why tonight? Why not earlier this evening? Why not tomorrow morning, after we’ve all gotten a good night’s sleep and are feeling refreshed?”
“Well–,” the scholarly woman in the slightly worn nightgown, Professor Anastasia Bracing, begins, before Wainwright Davis cuts her off.
“Except few among us would get a good night’s sleep, am I right?” He taps his chin with a long, bony finger. “Of course I’m right. It would be difficult to sleep tonight knowing there’s a murderer amongst us. Or in the case of the killer, it would be difficult to sleep knowing they could very well be caught before this train reaches its next stop, even if they assume their guilt will never be uncovered.”
“I suppose that’s–,” starts Darby Washington, the newspaper reporter, but he is unable to finish when the investigator starts again.
“Except,” Wainwright Davis says, “I know who the murderer is. And furthermore, I know how they committed the murder, why they did it, and how they expect to get away with it.”
“Excuse me,” Major Ewing says, “but you said ‘they.’ Is there more than one killer?” He looks at the other passengers with a coldness that is an attempt to hide his agitation.
“Oh, don’t be stupid!” Professor Bracing snaps. “‘They’ can be singular as well as plural.” She shakes her head sadly. “What are they teaching in military academies these days?” She looks up at the detective. “But surely you meant it to be singular, right? There is only one murderer here?”
“Only one!” says Mrs. Rugowski, her hair still in curlers, not that she cares how she looks at this time of night. Or ever, really. “Even one is too many!”
The thin man snaps an arm out and points at Mrs. Rugowski. “Exactly right!” he says, then turns to Anastasia Bracing and says, “You’re correct, Professor. There is only one murderer here.”
“Are you sure?” Darby Washington says. The reporter has a pencil and notepad at the ready. There’s always a story to be found.
“Of course I’m sure!” Wainwright Davis says. “I’ve followed every lead, examined every clue, observed everyone on the train. I’m absolutely sure.”
“Then you’re an idiot,” Major Ewing says, casually pulling a revolver from the folds of his bathrobe. He raises it swiftly, and with a BANG! the investigator crumples to the floor, a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. Silence fails over the dining car.
After what feels like an hour of quiet, Wally Trumble, the silver-haired train steward, says, “Wow! For all of his talk about what a great, accomplished detective he is, I really thought he had us all dead to rights.”
“Poor choice of words,” Professor Bracing says, “but yes, I did as well.”
“That’s why I asked about his use of ‘they’!” Major Ewing protests. Then he grumbles, “They teach excellent grammar at West Point.”
“Okay,” Mrs. Rugowski says. “Fine. Fair enough.” She looks at the ragdoll corpse of the so-called great detective. “It’s kind of a shame he didn’t figure out that we all killed that bastard Oglevy.”
“A shame!?” Darby Washington exclaims. “Maybe it’s a shame we had to kill two people instead of one, but it has all worked out, right?” The other passengers nod in agreement.
And the train speeds on through the autumnal Pennsylvania night.