The Ghost in Roomette Four

The Ghost in Roomette Four by Janet DawsonIt’s almost midnight on the sleek streamliner known as the California Zephyr, en route from Oakland to Chicago in 1953. Heading for her quarters, Zephyrette Jill McLeod walks through the Silver Gorge Pullman car, and sees something she can’t explain. Is the shimmering light a ghost? Jill doubts the evidence of her own eyes, but soon learns that others have seen the phenomenon, too. Whatever—whoever—is haunting roomette four may be connected to an incident two months earlier, when Jill found the body of a young man there. The verdict on the death was natural causes. Now it looks like the unquiet spirit is pointing to murder.

Buy it:

“A nostalgic, wonderfully detailed look at an era when trains were still a major mode of transportation and life.”
Kirkus Reviews

“The details of train travel, especially on the Zephyr, which ran from Oakland to Chicago, are wonderfully researched. The descriptions of sleeper cars, observation domes, and even the lounge cars make one want to hop aboard a train.”
Reviewing the Evidence

Excerpt:

I am not seeing this, Jill McLeod told herself.

But she was.

Light shimmered at eye level, about ten feet in front of her. The apparition seemed to have no source. None, anyway, that Jill could discern. What’s more, she could see through it.

Jill took a step toward the light. It brightened, then dimmed. She took another step. The light flickered and moved into roomette four.

She shook herself. A few more steps, then she stopped at the open doorway of the roomette and peered inside.

Empty.

Of course it was empty. There was no one traveling in this space. When the California Zephyr reached Salt Lake City, at 5:20 A.M., the passenger holding a reservation for this roomette would board the train.

But she had seen the luminous flicker. Surely it was just a trick of the light. But what light? How? There was nothing but darkness outside the roomette’s window, save the occasional twin headlights of a vehicle at a crossing or a pinprick from a distant ranch. Here in the passageway the electric lights were dim. What Jill had seen was different from those ordinary lights. Different, and hard to explain. What could have caused it?

It was nearly midnight. The train’s last station stop had been in Elko, Nevada, at 11:17 P.M. Now the train sped east, heading for the Great Salt Desert that spanned western Utah. The passengers traveling in this Pullman car, the Silver Gorge, had gone to bed.

Jill would have been in bed, too. However, before she could remove her uniform and put on her pajamas, she and the first-aid kit she carried had been summoned by a porter to one of the Pullman cars. Jill was a Zephyrette, the only female member of the train’s onboard crew. Her job was to see to the passengers’ needs. That included everything from answering questions to broadcasting announcements on the train’s public address system, making dinner reservations, mailing postcards and sending telegrams—and treating a little boy who had scraped some skin off his elbow when he jumped off the bunk in the sixteen-section sleeper near the back of the train. She had doctored the child with Merthiolate from her kit and put a bandage on his arm.

She was returning to her own quarters when she entered the Silver Gorge and saw—whatever it was she was seeing. Or had seen. It was gone now. She set the kit on the floor and entered the roomette, seeing her own reflection in the window.

“I must have imagined it,” she whispered.

But she wasn’t imagining the chill inside the roomette. It was faint at first, a few degrees lower than the temperature in the corridor. As she stood there, the cold grew more penetrating. It seemed to go through her, to her bones. She moved toward the door. Then she heard four short taps.

Frightened, Jill hurried out of the roomette into the corridor, nearly tripping over the first-aid kit. She picked up the kit and retreated a few steps, stopping at the door that opened onto the soiled linen locket. Her heart pounded. She took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down.

She struggled to find a rational explanation for what she had seen and heard. And felt.

I did see it, she thought. I really did. And I heard those taps. That cold feeling. But . . . No, no, I must have imagined it. I’m tired, that’s all. It’s just because I’m tired.

She breathed in and out. The rapid beating of her heart slowed. Now all she heard was the rhythmic clickety-clack of the train’s wheels on the rails below her. A rumbling, wheezy snore erupted from behind the closed door of the nearest roomette. The passenger inside was sawing logs, as Jill’s father would say.

The Silver Gorge was, in railroad parlance, a ten-six sleeper. That meant the car had ten roomettes, five on either side of the center passageway where Jill stood, and six double bedrooms facing another passageway at the front of the car. The roomettes were designed to accommodate one person, while the double bedrooms had two beds, one upper and the lower a bench seat that converted into a bed. At the soiled linen locker where Jill stood, in the middle of the car, the passageway jogged right, then left again.

Jill pushed away from the locker and turned to her left, entering the corridor that fronted on the bedrooms, with doors to her left and windows to her right. She heard a loud, whistling snore coming from bedroom E, then the two-long, one-short, one-long whistle, a warning as the train approached a crossing.

Jill went through the vestibule to the next car, the Silver Crane. The Pullman porter, Darius Doolin, sat in his tiny compartment. He stood up when he saw her. Threads of silver streaked his close-cropped black hair and wrinkles wreathed his coffee-with-cream face. He’d loosened the collar on his white shirt, preparing to settle down and get whatever sleep he could before the train arrived in Salt Lake City.

“I thought you’d long since turned in for the night, Miss McLeod.”

Mr. Doolin’s quiet voice was flavored with a Southern drawl. He’d once told Jill he was originally from Oklahoma, though he’d lived in Oakland for years. He was a veteran of more than twenty years as a porter, most of it on the Western Pacific Railroad, one of the three railroads that jointly operated the California Zephyr. That morning, the sleek streamliner, pulled by three Western Pacific locomotives, had departed from the huge shed called the Oakland Mole on San Francisco Bay. The WP took the train over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the Great Basin to Salt Lake City. There the locomotives and train crew would swap out for the Denver & Rio Grande Western crew and engines for the journey over the Rocky Mountains to Colorado’s capitol city. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad brought the train across the Great Plains into Chicago’s Union Station.

Jill, a Zephyrette, was considered an employee of the Western Pacific. The Zephyrettes were a small group of female railroad employees who traveled aboard the California Zephyr, which was called the CZ or the Silver Lady, because the sleek stainless steel cars all had “Silver” in their names. There were two trains per day, one eastbound, one headed west, each with one Zephyrette as part of the crew. The trip took two and a half days, and the Zephyrette had a layover of two nights in Chicago or San Francisco before boarding the California Zephyr for the return trip.

“Good evening, Mr. Doolin.” Train crew members were expected to keep things on a “mister and miss” basis, even though they had traveled together frequently, as was the case with Jill and Darius Doolin. She gestured at the first-aid kit she carried in her left hand. “I was called to the sixteen-section sleeper. A little boy hurt himself when he jumped off a berth.”

“A lot of children on the train this trip,” Mr. Doolin said. “And many of them running wild, as they sometimes do.”

Jill kept her voice quiet as well, not wanting to disturb any passengers. “Yes, there are lots of kids traveling. That’s to be expected since it’s summer. I’ve had such a hectic day. There were a couple of boys playing cops and robbers in one of the chair cars, and later a little girl who took a tumble on the stairs in the dome observation car. I’m tired. That must be—”

Mr. Doolin looked at her. “Is everything all right, Miss McLeod? You look a bit peaky.”

“I’m tired,” Jill said again. “That’s why I saw—”

“Saw what?” Mr. Doolin asked. When she didn’t answer, he smiled. “Oh, you saw the ghost. On the Silver Gorge.”

Jill stared at him. “You’ve seen it, too?”

He nodded. “Twice.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Jill said. “There has to be a logical explanation for what I saw.”

“Miss McLeod,” he said, “you know whose ghost that is. You’re the one who found the body. Two months ago, it was. In roomette four on the Silver Gorge. For some reason, that man’s spirit ain’t resting easy.”

Jill looked at him in consternation. “Resting easy? That man died of natural causes. Something to do with his heart. At least that’s what I was told.”

Mr. Doolin looked skeptical. “That may be. But he’s haunting that roomette. Trying to send a message, I expect. Now, you looked tired to the bone, Miss McLeod. You need to get to bed. That ghost will keep until tomorrow.” He smiled again and returned to his seat.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Jill muttered…