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Westchester Station
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ISBN-10: 1-89484-103-4
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 229 Pages
Published: December 2001
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Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

I, Robert Winstead, was brought here by someone I did not know for some purpose I had yet to discover. But I also knew that only by fulfilling that purpose would I be allowed to leave...assuming I survived the journey. Somewhere among the hallways and denizens of this haunted environment I would find the answer. I had to.


Westchester Station (Excerpt)


Prologue


The Canadian Express blew into Chicago like a fleet of sailors on shore leave. No city, no matter how experienced in dealing with hostile weather, could hope to cope with such a sudden onslaught of cold, wind and snow; within twenty minutes of reaching the Loop, the storm shut Chicago down.

This was something I had not planned for. On my business trips I try to plan for everything. I have copies of my credit card numbers in my luggage, my wallet, on the insole of my wingtips. I carry two sets of spare batteries for my laptop computer. My business trips are too important to entrust to secretaries, so I make reservations for planes, hotels and autos myself and well in advance. Then I triple-check them before I leave. I arrive at my destination the night before any appointment, no matter how late, and reach the airport at least three hours before scheduled departure. I paid a heavy price learning the need for such precautions...I missed an important meeting - and subsequently lost the account - due to a walkout by taxi drivers in Baltimore. I don't have that many clients; I can't afford to lose more.

So I was already in O'Hare, killing three hours in an executive lounge and reviewing my notes for my dog-and-pony show in Schenectady the following day when the storm hit. Its initial greeting rattled the windows and more than one of the patrons.

"Holy shit!" rose from several throats at once and there was a mini-stampede to the windows to view what God had wrought. It was a sight that guaranteed depression. The snow tumbled at nearly a 900 angle, and so thickly that it was impossible to see the planes and runways outside. Takeoffs or landings would be suicide; the announcement, which surprised no one, came shortly afterward. The airport was closed; no one was going out, no one was coming in.

"You think the bastards could plan," one man said as he gulped down his third or fifth martini. During a brief conversation I had discovered he was a salesman also, but no one had bought his widgets on this trip. We had soon determined neither was a prospect for either; my company wasn't in manufacturing and his didn't want any advertising. We had not readdressed each other until now.

He waved his swizzle stick like a conductor's baton; I was surprised the olives didn't become airborne - something the planes outside would not. His volume increased and pronunciation worsened as he raved on. "We have all these satellites and high-tech bullshit. All those Phd's and BVD's and weathermen who call themselves 'meteorologists.' A pretty fancy name for someone who only has to smile on cue and dress well and point at a photograph if you ask me. They spend all that money and they can't tell us a storm like this is coming?"

I tried to ignore him. I've spent too many hours waiting in similar bars and overhearing equally intemperate conversations to be overly alarmed or amused or abashed by this one. I had more important considerations; i.e. how was I going to get to Schenectady?

One thing certain; I wasn't getting any closer sitting in the bar. I raced through a mental checklist as I shut off my computer and grabbed my bags. Clothes would be no problem; I had enough for a week while my trip was planned for three days. Finances were no problem; I always carried at least $500 in cash plus a plethora of gold and platinum plastic when out-of-town. Getting to Schenectady was the problem.

The martini drinker questioned me with blurred eyes and speech. "Where the hell you going? Back to your hotel?" He sprayed a laugh in my direction. "You really think you can get a room now? You're better off staying here, waiting it out. Be a man, for chrissakes."

Noticing the pile of souvenirs from his previous drinks, I was sure he would be passed out before the storm passed through. "I don't think my business will let me. I have to get out of Chicago tonight."

"Postpone the damn thing. They'll understand, weather like this. Here, let me buy you a drink."

Maybe, but will my boss? Truthfully he would, but I also recalled an old marketing adage; there are no obstacles, just opportunities. If I could prove to my prospective client my dedication and resourcefulness by making the meeting on time, I would have a leg up in winning the account. And I needed every edge I could get. "Thanks but no. I think Chicago has worn out its welcome."

He laughed and pointed outside. "Lotsa luck."

I shrugged and made my way from the sanctuary of the executive lounge into the throng of common people outside. O'Hare is normally organized chaos, but not this time. This time it was totally out of control. I should have chosen Midway, I thought darkly. I noticed a group of Japanese tourists huddled together at one bench, chattering unintelligibly among themselves. Nearby a mother rocked her infant, now wakened by the bedlam and adding to it what his little lungs could, and fought back tears. A distinguished gentleman in herringbone suit was dressing down a hapless skycap, as if the latter had anything to do with the carnage outside. Attendants at the airline counters shook their heads helplessly as passengers waved useless tickets before them. There were continual announcements over the public address system but the din made them impossible to hear. A public relations nightmare, and I felt relieved that I was not the one who would try to calm the waters. Although, I decided, this would be an excellent night to have a client advertising on the local news.

How do I get to Schenectady? I struggled by the car rental companies, but their lines were impossible. I gave a parting glance toward the phones, but there were equally long queues at every one. Calling the bus lines or train station from here was out of the question. Yet certainly one or the other could get me east far enough to escape the blizzard. With no other options, I pushed my way toward the exits and finally forced myself outside.

The wind tore at me like a frenzied shark; no surprise the planes were grounded. The question was, would everything else? I pulled my coat tightly around myself and peered out into the white blur.

"Robert Winstead. I'm over here, sir. Your taxi's over here."

Somehow the unfamiliar voice carried through the wind. Was he talking to me? How could he be talking to me? But someone had to be; it was too much to believe that someone else with my name was sharing this delightful weather outside O'Hare.

I looked around. I could almost distinguish a few travelers, fewer cabs, and one man waving frantically in my direction. There was no one else near me; he must mean me. I picked up my bags and plodded toward him.

Another man was there already. And he was irate. "What do you mean, you won't take me?" he screamed at the cabby much louder than the weather required. "Do you think this is New York or something? I was here first!"

The frustrated fare towered over the driver, an old, wizened man. But the latter was adamant. "I'm sorry, sir. Mr. Winstead reserved my cab already. I must take him." He pointed at me.

"That's bullshit. I'm going to report this to your supervisor." He turned and saw me, surprised and innocent and shivering nearby. "Since when can anyone reserve a cab? This is a total crock."

The old man walked up and casually took my bags. I didn't understand but I was too cold to wait for another. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? "I travel to Chicago frequently. My company has a standing arrangement with his company," I lied quickly.

"True enough, sir," the driver said, putting the last of my few bags in the trunk. "I'm his regular driver, I am."

The man shivered from his anger and the cold. "I was here first." He looked at me, suddenly placating. "Surely there's room for two."

"Against company rules," the driver said brusquely and led me to his car. "Only one passenger per ride. Another cab will be by soon enough." He almost pushed me inside, shut my door and was already driving away before the man could reply.

Ensconced in the back seat, I discovered another reason against double fares; there simply wasn't enough room. Which surprised me. The car had seemed adequate enough outside, but inside it was unusually narrow, almost as if some massiveness of the vehicle had been lost when I entered it. "Thank you," I finally said. "I don't know how you know my name or that I was here, but I appreciate the lie."

"No lie," the man replied in a voice as dry as breaking bones.

"You mean?" I struggled with his remark, then thought better of it. Surely my boss couldn't pull those kind of strings, not from back in New York. But my first priority was Schenectady. Other questions would be dealt with later. "Take me to the bus station."

"No buses leaving tonight, sir."

I looked out the window. Was it my imagination or had the storm brought with it an early night as well? I could see nothing but snow and darkness. No lights, no highway, nothing else. "The train station, then."

"Westchester it is, sir."

"Westchester?" That wasn't the name of Chicago's station. "What is Westchester?"

"A train station, sir. You can catch your train at Westchester."

How does he know what train I want? "I can get a train to Schenectady at Westchester?"

"If that's where you're going, sir."

I looked up and saw his license staring at me from behind his seat. "Char. O'Neill," it said below the photo of a totally undistinguished and indistinguishable old man. I frowned automatically at the replaced "r" for an "s," a result of my years of forced proofreading. But that was only one of many things that were troubling me and I had had enough. I leaned forward. "I don't think so. I want to go..."

"To Westchester. It's much closer, sir. I don't think I can get you downtown in time. Not in this weather. I can get you to Westchester in time. I recommend we go to Westchester Station, sir."

I rankled at the man's effrontery. I work in a service industry, too, and what the client asks for he should get. Within reason. This time I was the client. "You do, eh? Then how come I have never heard of this Westchester Station? It's not like I haven't ever been to Chicago before, you know."

"It's a very small station, sir. Not many people use it these days. But you will find it quite suitable, I'm sure."

I looked outside. All I could see was snow and dark. I had no idea where I was; I had no idea how the man could see the road, let alone find this "Westchester Station." Reluctantly I had to admit I was at his mercy. Okay, we'll do it your way. Tomorrow, though, I talk to your supervisors. "I will be able to catch a train to Schenectady? Tonight?"

"You will be able to go where you have to go."

Those words again. They didn't calm me but I had no other choice. "Fine." I settled back in my seat. If I was being driven to a coven to serve as a sacrifice, there wasn't much I could do about it. Not in this storm.

Unlike cabbies I knew the man seemed quite satisfied with silence, so I studied the cramped vehicle. The car was old but I could not discern the model. The leather of the seat was well-worn and warm and comfortable. There was a slight rocking motion, as if the car was driving on bad springs. Not unpleasant, just unusual, especially considering the savageness of the storm beyond. Most surprising, however, was the quiet. I could hear the low hum of the engine, but the sound of the wind did not intrude. It was almost too quiet and I was tempted to crack a window just to break the monotony. But then I noticed there were no cranks for the windows. Or handles for the doors. To prevent people from skipping out on their fares?

The only light came from the dashboard, but it was so dim I could make out none of the instruments or other details of the vehicle's interior. What was the old line; I don't know where we're going, but we're making good time? I certainly didn't know where we were going, or why he had chosen me. Chosen; yes, that's the word. I wanted to question him, then thought better of it. Driving in weather like this would require total concentration. When we got to Westchester; that's when I would ask him. I wriggled back into the comforting confines of the seat. When we get to Westchester. Wherever that was.

Westchester Station


I pointed out our projected rise in sales in response to increasing the advertising budget appropriately among targeted demographic groups on the handsomely prepared chart beside me. "All evidence shows us that a company which markets itself aggressively during an economic downturn will be able to increase market share and maintain that increase not only during the slow period but also when the economy rights itself." I smiled at the wall of unsmiling faces around the table. Not one of you want to hear this, do you? As if I'm stealing money directly from each of you. Marketing morons. My smile remained in place. "Any questions?"

That's when the earthquake struck. My easel stand keeled over, showering us with the charts and graphs so laboriously created by my art department. I stood in awe and could only watch the chaos continue about me. But I'm in Schenectady, not San Francisco. They don't have earthquakes in Schenectady. The phenomenon was ludicrous; I started to laugh. Then the entire room was collapsing around me. I tried to duck as the ceiling came rushing toward me. Or was it the floor? Or a wall? I threw my arms in front of my face as if somehow that action would deflect tons of falling masonry.

And then I woke and found myself in the back seat of a taxicab. An old man was leaning across the front seat of a car, gently shaking my shoulder.

"We're here, sir."

Here? Where? Then I remembered; O'Hare, the blizzard, the cab. Suddenly I froze. How long had I been sleeping? I glanced at my watch and was reassured by the time; only forty minutes since leaving the airport. The station must be surprisingly nearby.

Why I had fallen asleep during the ride, however, puzzled me. I wasn't tired from work; in fact, my anger and anxiety caused by the snowstorm should have been enough to keep me up for hours. Maybe it was the unusual quiet of the car.

"We're here, sir," the cabbie reminded me again, a bit more loudly.

"Yes, excuse me." I gave an embarrassed smile. "I must have nodded off."

"That happens."

"How much do I owe you?"

He pointed at the meter. "Three-five forty six."

An unusual amount and an unusual way to state it. "I don't suppose you take credit cards," I asked only half in jest as I reached for my wallet.

"We have no use for credit, sir."

I leafed through my wallet and sighed; I was getting near my self-imposed $200 cash reserve limit rapidly. I would have to find an automatic teller once I reached Schenectady; nothing upsets a merchant more than paying American Express a percentage for a $10.00 lunch. "$35.46." I withdrew two 20's. "Three-five and forty-six." Now that I said them, the numbers sounded strangely familiar. Where have I heard them before? Three-five..." I stopped, amazed at the coincidence. "Hell, that's my birthday!"

"So it is."

"What?" He gave no indication of repeating the remark, so I handed him the fare. Perhaps I had misunderstood. "Keep the change."

"Thank you. You may leave."

"I may?" Then the door next to me swung open. "How did you do..." I turned back to him but he was staring out the windshield, eager to be on his way. "Thank you again."

I stepped from the cab, steeling myself for a blast of snow and cold. There was none. Instead the storm seemed to have bypassed the locale completely because there was no snow anywhere. The slight breeze was cool, the stars distorted by a light fog. My luggage sat at the curb. Even as I bent over to retrieve it I could hear the cabbie driving away.

I straightened and studied my surroundings. Before me was a small, old, poorly lit building. At any other time I would have returned to the taxi and insisted I be taken elsewhere. But my driver was gone; there were no other cars to be seen. Not a good omen, I thought, and the image of witches and bloody sacrifices came to the fore. I shuddered, then forced it aside. I had no alternative; I picked up my bags and walked toward what was apparently Westchester Station.

The building was even more nondescript and discouraging up close. A cinder block structure, probably a WPA project. The windows were covered with a thick layer of dirt; little light escaped from the interior. If it wasn't for the uniformed man standing by the one door I would have assumed the building abandoned. I should have called, postponed the meeting. Punctuality, I decided then, was not always a virtue. Too late now. Taking a deep breath, I approached him.

I had only walked a few steps when a woman stepped out of the shadows. "A moment, sir," she called out softly.

A panhandler? Someone in need of a light? Surely not a proposition. I set down my luggage. "Can I help you?"

She was well-dressed, tall for a woman, attractive from what I could see in the diffused light from the lamp overhead. But I could also see an urgency on her face, if not desperation. She touched my arm; her hand trembled, but not from the weather. "You are going in Westchester Station? Yes?"

"If this is Westchester Station, then, yes."

"Take me in with you. Please."

I looked at her, then at the guard at the door. "What is the problem? Why can't you just walk in yourself?" I laughed. "Surely they don't charge admission at a train station!"

She clutched at my arm. "I...can't. I have to be with someone. He won't let me in otherwise."

"A lady in distress, then." I mentally girded my loins. "I will go and talk with the gentleman. There must be some kind of misunderstanding."

"No." Her reaction was surprisingly strong. "Let me walk in with you. Put your arm around me and just let me walk in with you."

I pondered. Was this a proposition after all? A new pickpocket's ploy? "That seems reasonable enough." I put my laptop computer under my left arm and grabbed my bags so my right arm was free to honor her request. Then I heard her gasp and I turned around. The guard was standing behind us.

"Can I help you, sir?" His voice was deep with authority.

"There seems to be some misunderstanding," I told him sternly. His hat was pulled low over his face; no features were distinguishable. "My fiancee was waiting for me..."

"She is not your fiancee."

I stepped back, startled then angered. "How dare you, sir!"

"Come with me, sir. You," he turned to the woman, "stay here."

I expected a retort, some type of righteous reaction. Instead she bowed her head meekly; she would stay there until doomsday, I was sure of that. He grabbed my arm and pulled me away; I was too surprised to protest. "Do not talk to that woman," he said harshly after we had walked a few paces. "She is not to be trusted. She is dangerous."

He was now looking straight at me, mere inches away, yet I still could not make out any of his features even though the light fully illuminated his uniform. "Dangerous? How? I don't understand."

"She is," he paused, "a drug dealer. We cannot let her into Westchester Station. She was here once and left. She may not return."

I glanced her way. She looked like a child not being invited to play. "I don't understand. If she's dealing drugs, then isn't that a matter for the police? It's certainly not your concern."

"It certainly is. My responsibility is to guard this station. Unless the station master so declares, she may not reenter."

A drug dealer? He didn't sound too certain of the charge. But I wasn't in a position to question his authority, either. I looked back at the woman. Her eyes remained focused on the ground, her posture saying all about the outcome she expected. "I would like to talk with the station master."

"He will be available to you when it is time."

"I think the time is now.? I glanced once more at the woman. I wanted to talk to her but the guard had planted himself between us. By his stance I knew no argument was going to move him. Angered and confused - and disappointed with myself for my ineffectiveness - I picked up my bags and went to the door that said "Entrance only." And opened it.

And was immediately entranced as the door closed behind me.

I found myself at the top of a flight of steps leading down into the station itself. From where I stood the station seemed as large as a small football stadium. The suddenly cavernous room was flooded with light, an almost overpowering brightness that bleached the well-worn marble floors below. The railings and other fixtures were brass or aged wood; the walls, by contrast, were a uniform, utilitarian gray. Above, the cathedral ceiling held a hundred skylights beyond which the stars glowed in shades of reds and blues and yellows.

What stunned me most, however, was the quiet. The station was not crowded, yet in such an open structure the sounds should echo loudly, not be a muted undertone that intruded upon one's consciousness no more than one's pulse.

I set down my luggage. This can't be. This couldn't be. Before, the station had looked so -?- insignificant. I turned to open one of the doors and go back outside, to check my memories. But the doors refused to open. Apparently they're serious about "entrance only" around here. With no other option (and I was quickly tiring of having no options), I picked up my luggage and started down the stairs. First, I decided, I would get my tickets; then I would complain to the station master.