Hiram Estee was a railroad man. Thirty-seven years a man of the tracks. He’d been a Navy pilot and had offers from a few commercial airlines. "Not for me," he'd told the recruiter from United Air Lines. "You go too damn fast and flying too high to enjoy the view." Hiram eased back on the throttle and tugged the whistle's cord just for the hay of it.
He loved the milk run between Reno and Nevada City. The track, cut out of the granite cliffs of the Sierra Nevada mountains, meandered past Donner Lake then Lake Spalding. It zig-zagged into the dark of numerous tunnels then out to the light and hundred mile vistas.
Fifteen minutes out of Nevada City, Hiram poured a final cup of coffee into a red mug with the image of a 1849 steam engine hand painted on the side. A birthday gift from Bonnie. He missed her.
On the tracks, Hiram leaned out of the engine port, eased off the throttle and let gravity bring the train to a halt. He waited until the red light above the tunnel arch turned green. There was a switch-back on the other side of the tunnel. And he supposed another train was waiting for him to pass. Good enough. Hiram was a stickler for getting where-ever on time.
Fifteen minutes later Hiram goosed the throttle forward. The train was on a twelve mile down-hill run. A chance to relax. He accelerated and his train dipped into a single tracked tunnel. Marble veins of granite walls flickered in the dark. The train rumbled back into daylight. To Hiram's left was a retaining wall, to his right, a sheer cliff. Ahead, facing in the opposite direction a lone figure was bent over the track inspecting a railroad tie.
"Oh, shit! Track walker!" Hiram screamed, yanking the whistle cord and shoving the air brake lever. The train groaned. Sparks splattered as the wheels tried to fuse with the steel rails.
Jake Cless, a track walker, fingered his long hair away from his ears, smiled, and was instantly severed in two by the diesel engine of his Navy friend and poker buddy, Hiram Estee.
Garry Sorkin, private investigator, hated this part of his job.
Conference rooms. Cops on his left. An insurance agent on his right. At least the insurance agent was nice to look at.
She cocked a reddish eyebrow at Garry, "Mr. Sorkin, I understand you're here to represent the decease’s family. Our company does not and will not honor a life insurance policy when Mr. Cless' death was an obvious suicide."
"The State disagrees Ms. Beltram. Hiram owed Jake a large sum of money." Detective Leal enjoined. "But you do pay for murder, Ms. Beltram. Premeditated, murder. Time for your company to open up its wallet."
Two hours later, Sorkin sat on the single cot in Hiram's cell. "I did everything I could to stop my train. Blew the damn air horn." He said. "Jake and I were pals. We go way back."
"How much money did you owe him?" Sorkin asked.
"Four, maybe five thousand..." Hiram caught himself and glared. "Mr. Sorkin you think I'd kill one of my best friends for a lousy five thousand dollars."
Insurance agent Beltram sighed as Sorkin bulled into her office, pulled out a chair and sat down cowboy style. "What's your company's problem? Jake Cless was accidentally run over by a train."
"He's a track walker, Mr. Sorkin. Been a track walker for nearly thirty-two years. Track walkers don't have accidents. They check for lose spikes and rotten ties. They’re on constant alert.
They have to be. Besides dodging trains coming at them from both directions, some nasty, hungry critters live along those tracks."
Sorkin dropped his elbows on the back of the chair and cupped his chin. "They’re charging Hiram Estee with involuntary manslaughter."
"He was going too fast and wasn’t paying attention. But he’ll never go to trial," Beltram shrugged. "It wasn’t an accident. It was a suicide. Jake Cless was dying. Cancer was eating him from inside. He chose his own time and place to die. We both should respect that. I understand it was almost painless. Though I doubt he knew his friend was driving the engine. Sorry, Mr. Sorkin we don’t pay insurance claims on suicides."
In his room at the Holiday Inn that evening, Garry poured himself a second shot of bourbon. The ice machine was out of order so he drank it straight up. On top of a wobbly table lay photographs of the scene. Sorkin hunkered down for the twentieth time.
The first picture showed the upper torso of man spread out twenty feet from the railroad track. Sorkin eyed it with a magnifying glass. He did the same with the next and the next. He fingered through close ups and longer shots. Different angles of the railroad tracks and tunnel, past the retaining wall and finally the a shot of the railroad tracks snaking off in the distance. Fifty yards from the upper half of the body was the lower half. Sorkin turned the photos upside down, scanned them for a beat, then turned one sideways. "Son of a bitch! I wonder. "
By 11:00 a.m the following morning Sorkin, had revisited the site of the accident, suicide, murder, the office of Dr. Alice Carreon,
and was back at the jail holding Hiram Estee. He used his cell phone to call insurance agent Beltram. Please meet me at the Colfax jail. Oh, and bring your check book.
Dennis Sperio, President of the Track Walker's Union ~ Statement
"Jake was one of our best. Of course everyone checks the ties and spikes, but Jake took it another step. He tested the underpinning. He looked for erosion. Hell, he carried a screwdriver and poked it around for termite damage. After Jake walked a track you knew it was safe.
Gino Fappiano, switchman, Nevada City Train Yards~Statement
"Jake loved poker. He was better than most. And more than once I seen him fold a hand rather than take the rest of someone's
stake. Of course sometimes you had to scream to keep him in the game. "
"Jake Cless was dying of cancer. He'd eaten a ham & swiss sandwich and a non-alcoholic beer for lunch …...”
Looking at the photographs of the scene, Sorkin spied a strap hanging on bush twenty feet above Jake’s upper torso.
That morning at the scene Sorkin found the strap and the attached back-pack. In side he discovered “Stormy Weather” a Carl Hiassen novel, a melted Twixt bar, a plastic water bottle and at the bottom a small, blue box containing two hearing aids’d b. Audiologist Alice Carreon confirmed that they were Jake’s
and that the batteries were dead.
Judge William Garr ruled accident.
Ms. Beltram insurance company paid Jake’s family.