The Scarlet Express
I had eight hours to kill. I adjusted my legs and leaned back in the seat as the train started to rumble and begin moving. Glasses clinked and light-hearted cheers of excitement rang throughout the aisles of the Scarlet Express to commemorate its maiden voyage. The ride to shining Los Angeles wasn’t terribly long, only about half a day, but the wealthy prefer to travel in style, no matter how close the distance. The Scarlet was equipped with gorgeous, comfortable lounge chairs and gourmet food that was served on the finest china. It was almost unfortunate that our escape would be so soon and we couldn’t ride all the way to the destination.
I knew the plan. Despite going through each step a million times in my head, my stomach still felt like it was flipping upside down. Maybe it was just motion sickness, but the risks involved were undeniably high. As soon as the train began to move, there was no chance of going back. About eight hours into the journey, the train was set to slow down significantly as it passed a small town. At that time, my brother, Tom, would block the door and fire a warning shot, allowing me to scare Mrs. Margaret Thistleton, the richest madame on board, out of her priceless necklace. Then, we’ll hop off with Joe and Eric, some buddies of ours, who are driving up behind us and we’ll be out of there. No one gets hurt, and the money would be ours to use for Mom’s treatment as well as Joe and Eric’s families.
I tipped my hat to my brother, Tom, who was settling in the seat closest to the car door in the front. I was seated parallel to Mrs. Thistleton who wore her most prized necklace, a gift from her husband featuring the largest diamonds I have ever laid eyes on. I tried not to stare too long, but the thought of those cold, sparkling diamonds in my hands was so vivid I couldn’t help but be fixated.
I traveled light. All I had with me was a cheap suitcase for show that only contained a simple newspaper I’d already read. I resolved to distract myself by listening to the shallow conversations of the frivolous, rich folk surrounding me. To them, I looked like any unsuspecting wealthy young gentleman, but in reality, I was just a poor guy who pulled a few strings to steal a ride onto one of the most fancy modes of transportation available in 1925. Their conversations almost made me laugh out loud.
“Lorna, dear, please stop being ridiculous,” A snobbish woman’s voice cut through my thoughts from a few seats ahead of me. I wondered if anything could be more ridiculous than her hat, which was adorned with large orange flowers that almost covered her face.
“Oh, don’t be rude, Auntie.” a young woman replied.
“You’ll never find a husband with hands that look as hard as a mechanic’s!” The aunt jeered.
“Well then, I guess I’ll just have to marry a nice mechanic man. At least I’ll find him interesting,” Retorted the young woman. I grinned to myself and peeked around the seat to look at the girl who was obscured by her aunt’s orange hat. She had a rather pretty face and dark brown hair arranged in short, intricate waves.
“Edward Galloway has been absolutely dying to see you again since the Gala. He is the perfect match for you darling, don’t you remember how much time you spent together?” I heard her aunt say, exasperated.
“In no way was it my choice to be in his company. I think he’s absolutely boorish. He’s as perfect a match for me as an actual pig,” The young woman said.
“Lorna! How dare you. You understand how this match will benefit us. You’re lucky enough that he’s handsome,” The older woman insisted. “I don’t want to hear another word about this. What would your parents say?” She said sternly.
“They would have valued my happiness more,” She answered.
“Honey, happiness is never going to be easy for a woman. Even if she’s spoiled like you,” The aunt grumbled.
Abruptly, the young woman stood up.
“Excuse me, auntie. I’ll be sitting with different company for a while.”
She left her seat to make her way down the aisle towards my direction, contempt still showing in her dark eyes.
“Where are you going?” the aunt protested. She whispered angrily, probably trying her best not to make a scene in a train car filled with influential people.
I could now see the young woman more clearly. She wore a simple pale blue knit dress and she appeared to be about my age— twenty or so. As she sauntered down the aisle, she caught my gaze. Before I realized I was gawking, the young woman was right next to me. Her eyes peered curiously into mine, and her thin strand of pearls dangled in front of my face.
“Hello sir, I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but may I sit here for a while?” she asked me in a silvery voice.
Slightly dazed, I nodded and cleared my throat. I tipped my hat politely and responded, “Of course.”
She sat down next to me and fixed her skirt. A part of me wanted to turn her away. The stress about the heist was festering within me, but another part of me needed any company to distract my worried thoughts. Especially the company of a young woman with a story to tell.
“What brings you on the Scarlet this morning, miss?” I asked her.
“My aunt is taking me to Los Angeles hoping I’ll be engaged to a boring man,” she responded dryly.
I laughed lightly. “What makes him boring?” I couldn’t help asking.
Her face relaxed, and she turned to face me.
“He has no hobbies. No dreams. Everything is very well set in his life. There’s just no uncertainty,“she complained.
“Do you enjoy uncertainty?”
“I sat here with a stranger, didn’t I? My name is Lorna Weldon by the way, and I quite enjoy uncertainty.”
“It’s a pleasure, Miss Weldon. My name is R-” I coughed, remembering I was supposed to be someone important. I spouted out the most important name I could think of in the moment.
“My name is Rodney Sterning.”
Lorna’s eyes lit up, and her mouth curved into an excited smile.
“The Mr. Sterning? The very Sternings who helped fund the Scarlet and other trains? I am very interested in your family’s projects!” she enthusiastically said.
“You know of them?” I asked nervously. If I had to talk about the specifics of trains I would’ve jumped off right then.
“Yes, indeed! My father taught me a great deal in mechanics and technology. He always wanted a son, you see,” Lorna explained.
“Is that so? Is he with you?”
“Oh, no,” Lorna said. Her dark eyes turned downcast for a brief moment. “My parents were killed in a robbery. I was there.”
“I’m so sorry, Miss Weldon. I didn’t hear of it.” My chest squeezed.
“I was their only child, so it makes sense for my father to teach me everything he knew, son or not. Hunting, engine repair, numbers. He taught me all.”
“Dirty business. You sound quite capable. Do you even need a husband?” I joked.
“If my father was still here I just know he wouldn’t allow this horrible match,” she answered, glancing down at her lap. “I don’t think he would’ve approved of any man.”
I met her brown eyes again. “He sounds like a wonderful father.”
The conversation fell silent. The buzz of voices around us continued. I could tell she felt uncomfortable about sharing so much. Hearing Lorna speak of her parents made me think of my own, struggling to make their living back in Salt Lake City. My father was depending on me to take care of Tom. Even though Dad worked like crazy, we couldn’t afford to make Mom better without extra cash. Even if the extra cash came from stealing. The heist today was supposed to be our biggest yet, but also the most risky. I felt a twinge of guilt about Lorna’s loss. I knew it was irrational, but I couldn’t stop myself from feeling responsible about her parents. They died in such a needlessly violent robbery. I couldn’t help wondering how old she was when her parents were taken from her.
“I’ve told you too much about myself. I apologize if I sound spoiled or rude. I realize the match my aunt made for me is necessary. Edward Galloway may be an idiot but maybe I don’t know him well enough. I’ll return now. Thank you very much for humoring me, Mr. Sterning.”
Lorna stood up, but I grabbed her hand. Embarrassed, I quickly released her.
“Miss Weldon, I think you are the most interesting company a boring man like me could ask for. You are welcome to stay here as long as you like.” I blurted out.
I could feel Tom’s eyes on me. He probably thought I was insane, socializing with a woman who I was supposed to basically threaten into hiding under a seat in a mere few hours. I was painfully aware.
Lorna sat down again with a small smile on her face.
“You can call me Lorna,” she said shyly. “Mr. Sterning, will you share anything about your own family?” she asked. “I can’t be the only one sharing personal things this early into an encounter with a stranger.”
“I have one brother. We’re very close.”
“Why is he not with you? Now that I think of it, I haven’t even asked for your own intentions in Los Angeles.”
“I am going to L.A. to help my father with the business. My brother is already there.” I felt guilty for being so vague, and I found myself more and more despicable for lying to such a kind woman. I should’ve just let her return to her seat so she could forget about this whole conversation, but for some reason, I couldn’t allow myself.
“Mr. Sterning, could you please tell me something very important?”
“Do you prefer dogs or cats?”
Hours passed, and Lorna and I had covered everything I loved and everything she loved in a perfectly endless conversation. My anxiety about the imminent event had slipped to the back of my mind as Lorna and I discussed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, Chéri, A Passage to India, Jazz music, Emily Dickinson poetry, and horse racing. In the midst of all the laughter, Lorna’s hand found mine in my lap.
“I have a secret for you, Mr. Sterning.” She leaned close to my ear.
“A secret?” I wondered allowed. I was like a young teen with a crush again.
“You just don’t seem as stern as your name implies.” She burst out laughing, her vivacious laugh tickling my ears. Doubt crept up my spine and I couldn’t laugh with her this time.
“And you don’t seem like you’ll be marrying Edward Galloway,” I said in a low voice.
“Bold of you to assume, Mr. Sterning. I should be offended.” Her voice was light. I squeezed her hand.
“What I mean is, I hope you won’t marry Edward Galloway, Lorna.” Her face blushed a slight shade of pink and I felt my own cheeks heat up.
“Why is that?” She asked.
“I’ll find you in L.A. You have to teach me some things. Stuff like hunting, engine repair, numbers,” I said.
She giggled, tracing circles on my palm.
“I would love to. And you’ll teach me about the train business?”
“Maybe, but I feel there are many other things I can teach you.”
“Oh, yes? Like what?”
“For now, I’ll just leave it to be another thing for you to be uncertain of.”
Once Lorna fell fast asleep, I got up from the seat and walked over to sit with Tom.
I plopped down in front of him and glanced around cautiously. I leaned in towards him, and kept my voice quiet.
“Tom. This plan is starting to feel like more and more of a bad idea. I think we should just stick to what we know.”
His eyebrows rose. “Listen, I knew you were a little hesitant about this, but we are already in it. We need to do this for Mom and everyone at home,” Tom whispered.
I let out a long sigh. Despite being the youngest, Tom was always the more decisive one between us. When we were young kids, he took on three bigger kids just to get back a toy of mine. It was embarrassing to have my little brother fight for me, but I was still thankful, even if I’d never tell him. I always respected his decisiveness when it came to helping the family, but right now, I wasn’t so sure.
“I’m not sure these people deserve to be stolen from. Not anymore. I just feel like it could be dangerous,” I told him.
Tom’s face turned sour. “Don’t deserve to be stolen from? Are you serious? All they do is put their wealth on display for everyone to feel jealous of them. They don’t do anything to help the poor, to help us. We can’t just jump off and leave with Joe and Eric without that money, they’re counting on us. What’s gotten into you?” Tom snapped.
“We barely know how to use these guns, Tom,” I said, tapping the pocket of my coat. “And there are too many things that can go wrong.”
“We don’t need to use them,” Insisted Tom. “Joe got ‘em just for the threat. Think about it. Losing one necklace isn’t going to affect that woman’s life, but you can be damn sure it’ll affect ours. Relax, man. Go take a seat, we’re almost there.” Tom gestured outside the window where I saw the outline of the black automobile driven by Joe and Eric approaching in the distance.
“I know, but…” My voice trailed off. His head had already turned back towards the window. This train was already moving. The plan was already moving. All I knew is that I didn’t want Lorna to be a part of it. I went back to my seat where Lorna was napping peacefully. Her head was tipped backwards and her breaths were slow and even. She even twitched a little in her sleep. I lightly tapped her on the shoulder.
“Good morning, Mr. Sterning.” She stretched her arms and yawned.
“You have to leave this car for a while. Just for a few minutes. Can you do that?”
Lorna’s eyes narrowed.
“What? Why?” she asked.
I pulled her into a hug.
“You have to. I don’t want you to be involved with what’s about to happen.” I said, squeezing her.
“What’s about to happen?” Her hands gripped my coat, and her body tensed.
“See that woman over there with the gray hair and purple dress?”
“Mrs. Thistleton?” Her voice was close to my ear.
“That woman is wearing a necklace worth more than my parents have earned in their entire lives.”
“But you’re a Sterning?” She paused, processing my words.
“That necklace could get me the money my family needs, Lorna. It could help other people survive. We need it more than Mrs. Thistleton ever could.”
“But— so you lied to me? ” She asked, her grip on my coat pocket loosening.
“Hurry!” I urged.
A loud crashing sound broke our embrace as Joe and Eric drove up and smashed a train window in. Seconds later, I heard the sound of gunfire.
My head whipped around to see Tom with his revolver in the air.
“Everybody get down! You won’t get hurt if you cooperate!” he exclaimed. Screams of terror resounded throughout the train car as women and men dove beneath the seats for cover. My brother blocked the door.
“You! With the purple dress! Give that pretty necklace you’re wearing to that man!” Tom shouted, pointing towards me.
I got up and moved towards Mrs. Thistleton, lightly pushing Lorna aside.
Mrs. Thistleton slowly stood up and rose her hands to unclasp her diamonds, tears rolling down her blushed cheeks. “What if I gave you my pearls? Or my bracelet?” She stuttered.
My mouth was like cotton. I hesitantly reach for my pocket. The gun was just for a threat, not for killing. However, my pocket was empty.
“On the ground, ‘Rodney Sterning.’”
I slowly turn to see my own revolver pointed at me. I stood in shock and silence as I stared into Lorna’s piercing brown eyes. She must have stolen it.
“I can’t believe I trusted you, a stranger on a train.” Lorna’s voice shook. “I won’t let something like this happen again. Not like with my parents. This time, I’ll stop it.”
“Lorna…I need to do this, we just need the necklace,” I said, trying to keep my voice from breaking.
Lorna snatched the necklace from Mrs. Thistleton.
“M’am, if you wouldn’t mind, I’ll hold on to your necklace for safekeeping,” Lorna told Mrs. Thistleton. “I’ll return when these men are off this train.”
The older woman took cover beneath her seat, whimpering.
Lorna’s fiery gaze returned to me.
“As for you, you are going to get off this train right now and head back home with those guys in the car outside.” Her sweet tone from before had disappeared.
“Get down Lorna and listen to the men!” Her aunt screamed from across the train car.
Lorna didn’t waver. Her gaze was pointed in the direction of my gun, between my eyes.
“If you get off this train right now, I’ll spare both of your lives. I have two shots and I sure as hell will not miss,” she hissed at me.
I looked at my brother across the car, who was now aiming his gun in her direction.
“Tom!” I called out. “We can still escape. She says she’ll let us go.”
“She’s bluffing. She’s just a spoiled girl,” He said turning towards Lorna. “I’ll give you thirty seconds to drop that gun, before I start shooting these rich folk here. Does a woman like you even know how to use a gun?”
“I can shoot a quail from 30 yards, so that big head of yours should be an easy shot,” Lorna snapped, aiming the revolver in Tom’s direction.
“You better listen to her. She knows her way around a gun,” I said nervously. “We have to give it up.”
“We can’t just give it up. I’m not leaving without that necklace, and it seems like you’re running out of time,” he shouted before taking a cautious step forward.
“Not another inch!” Lorna screamed. They stood there, unmoving, eyes intensely fixed on each other.
“5,” Tom started his countdown.
“Lorna, please!” Her aunt yelled.
“4.” Sweat dripped down Lorna’s brow and her knuckles turned white.
“Lorna, I never wanted this.” I said. “Just drop the gun,”
Neither one seemed willing to stand down. My heart pounded and it became difficult to breath in the thick tension.
“Tom, put it down!” I cried.
I watched my little brother crumple to the ground. Everything stopped. My vision blurred with hot tears and my hands went numb. No one was going to get hurt. No one was supposed to die. We were supposed to be gone by now. We were supposed to have the money. We were supposed to help Mom.
I sprinted towards my only brother and lifted his head, but his green eyes looked at nothing.
“Tom, please. No…” I whispered. “Brother…”
“What’s going on in there?” yelled Joe from outside, driving faster to try to keep up with the pace of the accelerating train.
“You…” Behind me, Lorna stood, clutching her stomach, the necklace and her hand soaking red. Blood leaked onto the ground, leaving scarlet splotches on the pristine yellow carpet. Lorna dropped to her knees, then onto the ground of the train car.
“LORNA!” Her aunt rushed towards her. “My baby,” she sobbed. Lorna looked at her aunt and smiled weakly. She twisted her head towards me,
“You were supposed to… I didn’t…” I stuttered.
Picking up my brother’s gun, I took a shaky step towards Lorna and her aunt. The aunt screamed and backed away, leaving Lorna and I alone.
“Here. Isn’t this what you wanted?” Lorna asked, dangling the diamonds out for me. Her eyelids fluttered open and closed as she struggled for breath.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Lorna,” I said again, taking her hand. My mind was blank. It was only a few hours ago that her now icy hand was so warm and fit so well in mine.
“I am now perfectly certain of something,” she gasped. “I will never forgive you.”
Lorna’s arms went limp and the necklace dropped out of her hands. Her familiar dark brown eyes closed for the last time and I stroked her pale cheek.
I lifted the diamonds, dripping blood onto my own hands. I heard the distant voices of Joe and Eric yelling for my brother and I to escape. I stood up, releasing the necklace from my hands and watched it hit the ground before leaping off into the back of the car.