Category : fiction

Murders on the Keystone Express

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.

100 Years of Social Distancing

After two weeks of self-imposed quarantine in my small apartment, just my cat and me, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to get outside. I needed to be around people. I knew how important it was to stay away from people if we wanted to slow the spread of the virus until a cure was found. But there’s only so much solitude I could take. I had to risk it.

When I walked out of my apartment building, there was no one about. Not a single person. No dogs or cats. I could hear birds singing and saw some squirrels run by, but no one I could have a conversation with. And before you ask, yes, I’ve had conversations with dogs and cats. Mostly one-sided conversations, but still conversations as far as I’m concerned. That day, I had to walk half a mile before I found anyone to talk to. (more…)

No Way Out

There is no way out. The world is a locked room and our deaths will not be a mystery. There is no way in, there is no way out. It’s a trap. (more…)

Borges and Me

Whenever I read Borges, I want to write like Borges. This isn’t unusual. Whenever I read any author I love, I want to write like that author. I’m not sure if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, and I’m not sure I have the skill to successfully imitate any author, definitely not in a way that could be considered flattering, but I think that’s how you get better as a writer. Imitation.

Except it’s not me who becomes a better writer, it’s the other Neff. The Neff who writes volumes of fiction, while I just sit and think about writing while I’m in the shower or watching TV. Overcoming lethargy and putting pen to paper (or more accurately, opening a new document on the computer) to write stories? That’s the other Neff. I envy the other Neff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy enough with my life. I have a good job as a librarian (like Borges was) and I’ve had the fortune to live in other countries and be exposed to other cultures (like Borges did). I have good friends who are artists and writers (like Borges did) and they inspire me. But I also envy the life of that other Neff, the one who actually takes that inspiration and puts it into practice by writing. The one who starts stories and sees them through to the end.

Even worse, he writes stories that I had ideas for. For example, he wrote a fantasy novel about an epic war between leprechauns and giants. The leprechauns were a thinly-veiled metaphor, people living a fairly simple life of hands-on work and product, living in relative harmony with their environment. The giants were similarly obvious, people who live to dominate their environment and their fellow people with mass industrialization and depersonalization. The giants were expansionist, trying to invade and conquer the leprechauns, intent on using these charming folk as fodder for their polluted, mechanistic empire. It might sound simplistic, maybe even cliche, but the writing itself was full of poetic imagery, fast-paced narrative, and surprising plot twists.

It was a good enough idea for a novel, I’ve just never gotten around to writing it. But the other Neff? He did.

Meanwhile, I do my best to come to terms with never writing long, intricate, fully formed stories like that. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if I just try imitating my favorite writers, like Borges, but never even finishing what I start. Let the other Neff be the writer who does what I only fantasize about. It’s fine.

Cabin in the Words

I did a thing! It was fun and brilliant and none of you will ever get to see it. Maybe. We’ll see.

I decided to do Camp NaNoWriMo this April. I failed at it, but more importantly, I succeeded at it. It turns out, if I give myself two goals, I have a better chance of hitting at least one of them. At least when it comes to writing. Actually, I can think of some other areas where that works, too, but that’s another blog post or two. (more…)