237 Empire Express
The rain splattered against the window as she looked out, softening the outlines of the gray landscape as the train sped on. Katrina wasn’t surprised but the landscape rolling by looked nothing like it did in the Amtrak brochures. The route between New York and Schenectady wasn’t all rivers and bridges and rolling farm land, it seemed like mostly boarded up factories and junk yards with only the aging stations breaking up the monotony. No matter though, this wasn’t a vacation.
The conductor walked past her seat without looking side to side. He had the look of someone who didn’t want to be bothered. The car was clean but the seats were well worn, she’d had to change once when the first seat she picked had been unable to recline. She sat by herself in the middle of the half filled car. There was a man across from the aisle from her, mid twenties, kind of disheveled looking, and she could feel his eyes on her occasionally. She held the paperback in her lap, more as a prop to discourage conversation than to actually read .
She knew they did random security checks and had seen one of the railroad cops after they pulled out of Union Station but hadn’t seen him since. She had nothing to hide, almost. She had concealed carry permit but it was under here real name, not the name on the fake passport she used to buy her ticket. It would have been easy enough to get a gun on board but why risk it? She had a reliable contact in Albany, and he was being well compensated.
Her boss Mr. Rogers had asked her where she was going. He very seldom pried into her personal life but had become concerned when she had disappeared last spring for three weeks to help her friend Donna out of a jam. When she resurfaced they had a long talk about the nature of the work they did, and while she wasn’t an indentured servant, she had a responsibility to the firm not to do anything reckless that would bring unwanted attention. She told him she was going to Rochester to see her foster mother. She didn’t like lying to Mr. Rogers but the less he knew the better.
Rogers had taken a chance on her after her discharge from the Navy. She arrived physically battered and emotionally drained but he told her she fit the profile, college educated, ex military and un-attached. Her first year and a half at the firm were spent doing clerical work, then analysis, and When Rogers thought she was ready out in the field. She became quite useful. She could go places and blend in where her co- workers would stand out. She stood five foot five inches and had what she considered average looks. She weighed one hundred twenty five pounds but looked smaller with the loose fitting, nondescript clothes she usually wore. She caught her reflection in the window, she looked tired, Donna had always said she was prettier than she thought she was but she didn’t see it. She saw a woman in her mid thirties who looked like a faceless office drone, one of the covers she often used.
“Where ya headed?” It took her a second then she realized the question had been directed at her from the man across the aisle.
She looked at him expressionless and said, “Schenectady.”
“Yeah? Me too,” the man smiled revealing crooked. tobacco stained teeth. He was probably around twenty five and looked like he hadn’t slept in a few days. “Just coming back from my buddies bachelor party. It was pretty intense.”
She said nothing, just looked at him coolly. He didn’t seem to want to get the hint because he went on; “How about you? Do you live in Schenectady?”
“No, just going for work. I live in the city.”
“Ooh,” he said slightly sarcastically. “The City. Coming upstate to see all of us rubes?”
She tried to smile but knew it wasn’t working, she just wanted the kid to shut up.
“I’m from upstate originally so no, it’s nothing like that.” She picked up the book on from her lap and looked down at the page. After a moment, out of the corner of her eye she saw him rise from his seat and turned down the aisle towards the back of the train. She thought she heard the word “bitch” muttered under his breath.
Asshole, she thought.
She hadn’t lied to her boss exactly, she was going on to Rochester after a brief stop in Schenectady. She was going to see the person who had put her life on it’s current trajectory.
Her mother, it turned out, couldn’t stand to not have a man in her life. So when Katrina’s father was one of the twenty four Marines killed in combat during Operation Desert Storm in ‘91, it didn’t take her long to hook up with Dewey. Dewey was another Marine , but he did make it home from the Gulf. He had been in her father’s unit but had been sent home after killing an unarmed civilian. His overtures of comfort towards Katrina’s mother turned into romantic ones and a year later Dewey was discharged and moved the three of them from Camp Pendleton to Rochester NY, his hometown.
Katrina was eleven years old when her father died. It seemed like every year her memory of him seemed more distant. She had a photo in her suitcase, it was the last one they ever got from him. He was standing in front of a Humvee, in a t-shirt and camouflage pants, holding a sign up that said “Happy Birthday Trina!” Dewey had tried to throw it out once when he was “cleaning” the small house they were renting, but Katrina had found it and hidden it away.
It was in Rochester that things really turned to shit. Dewey’s dream of being a cop were derailed by his dishonorable discharge. He drifted from job to job and went through long intervals of unemployment. He had been a hard drinker in the Corps but now he was a hard drinker with a chip on his shoulder. He took it out on Katrina and her mom.
Try as she could Katrina found it hard to be sympathetic towards her mother. They could have left and gone to stay with her aunt in Jacksonville but her mother just stayed and endured it all, making excuses for Dewey’s behavior and telling herself and Katrina things were going to get better. She submerged herself in self pity and alcohol while Katrina struggled to make sense of it all. She didn’t have many friends at school but the ones she did seemed to have at least one functional parent.
One Friday night her mother and Dewey came home late from the bar and she could hear them arguing in the front room. Katrina heard her mother say, “Don’t touch me!” then a door slam and then nothing. She fell back to sleep but after a while was woken up by the sound of her bedroom door being opened. She rolled over and looked up expecting to see her mother coming in to check on her. Silhouetted in the doorway was Dewey. He hesitated for a moment and shut the door behind him.
She had just turned fourteen. Most girls her age were experiencing a totally different life: first boyfriends, first kisses, the slow treacherous march through puberty to adulthood. Dewey took that all away. She was never sure if her mother actually believed her or not. At first she was in a kind of shocked denial and then she confronted Dewey. He claimed it was all a lie and that Katrina was being a manipulative little bitch. Katrina’s mother did nothing.
Katrina didn’t see the situation improving on it’s own so she became proactive. She kept a kitchen knife under her pillow and locked her bedroom door. Then she ran away. The police found her and brought her back and she ran away again.
Some people, when put through such a hellish ordeal, crumble and fall. Katrina realized she was angry and would channel that anger into self preservation.
A school counselor noticed something had changed in Katrina’s makeup. Her grades and attendance were suffering. After getting only snippets of Katrina’s disfunctional home life she became suspicious and called the State Office of Child and Family Services. The counselor had told Katrina that he had placed the call so she was ready.
The day of the interview she threw out the milk and food in the refrigerator and poured one of Dewey’s beers all over the kitchen floor. Then she found his stash of pornography and left it out in the bathroom.
Her mother came home shortly after the man and woman from social services had arrived. She was shocked to see the state that the house was in and was only able to mount a feeble defense for the living conditions. Katrina felt bad for her mother but realized as long as she was going to enable Dewey she had no choice. She begged the social service people to take her out of the home. Her mother never contested it and Katrina felt a confusing mixture of further betrayal and the realization that she couldn’t stay there anyway.
The railroad cop finally made his way through the car. He shot the kid across from her a look but walked right past her. Once again she had blended into the woodwork.
She landed in a group home. There were five other girls there, each with her own hard luck story. She got into a fight with an older girl her second night there and was put on notice. Any more incidents and there would be trouble. Still it was better than sleeping with one eye open. She was smart though and could see the hopelessness in the eyes of the girls who had been in the system the longest, bounced around from group home to group home, or from foster home back to the group home. They were angry and afraid, and tried to cover it up with a tough exterior and an “I don’t give a shit” attitude. Some of them told horror stories about the foster homes: Parents who were just in it for the money the state sent or others who were just looking for free domestic help. One girl told her that the parents of the home she was placed in were ‘Jesus Freaks’ and used to tell her nightly how she was going to go to hell.
Then Katrina finally caught a break. Joe and Anne Penrod were in their late forties and had lost there only daughter to ALS five years before. Realizing that they were too old to have another child they at first looked to adopting a baby and then realized that the system was full of discarded souls who also were looking for a second chance.
After being certified by the DCFS they met Katrina and offered to take her home.
The Penrods lived in a small Cape Cod style home in Batavia NY. Joe was a letter carrier for the Postal Service, Anne had been a secretary but quit to take car of their daughter Meagan when she became ill. Anne still went to church regularly but Joe had lost religion after his daughter passed away. Despite the trauma they still loved each other deeply and it radiated in their everyday interactions.
Katrina hadn’t known what to expect on her arrival. The house only had two bedrooms and she was dreading the thought of taking Meagan’s old room. Would it be some kind of shrine to their late daughter? No evertything was gone. There was a new bed and dresser and nothing else.
“I know it looks pretty bland,” Anne had said. “It’s your’s to do what you want with.”
Katrina was never sure how much the Penrod’s knew, or suspected about her past, but she noticed Joe was very careful around her. He seemed to go out of his way at first to never be alone in a room with her and he never came too close. Anne on the other hand always had a warm smile for Katrina and seemed to be fighting the urge to
make contact. At the end of her first week at the Penrod’s Katrina went to her room and broke down, crying herself to sleep.
It took time, but a bond formed between the three of them. Anne could hover to the point of being annoying, but she was supportive and nurturing. Joe could be opinionated and sometimes gruff, but he was patient and fair. When Katrina needed correcting Joe could do it in a way that she could understand. When she did well at school she was allowed to take a Karate class and get a stereo for her room. When she skipped school once she was grounded and assigned extra chores. She found a way to suppress the anger she still felt coursing though her rather than take it out on the two people who were trying their hardest to provide her with a good life.
Around the same time, Katrina’s mother had finally had enough of Dewey. She left while he was out on a bender one night and made it to Florida to her sister’s house. She wrote Katrina a long letter. She started the letter by apologizing but then the tone shifted and she asked Katrina how she could have deserted her. Katrina was hurt but not surprised. Her mother had never been the adult in any relationship she had ever had. She was weak and helpless, two things Katrina vowed to never let herself become.
By her senior year in high school her grades were up and she had her red belt in karate. Her first thought was to join the Marines but Anne Penrod begged her not to, to get an education first and then think about the military. Joe offered to put off his retirement for a few years and help her pay for college. She reluctantly agreed and applied to the University of Rochester. She picked Computer Science as a major and received a Navy ROTC scholarship.
Donna Hauser was her freshman year roommate and helped Katrina acclimate herself to the “normal world.” She would drag Katrina out of their room and make her socialize. She begged Katrina to let her help her pick out clothes and put on make up, to come out of her shell. Katrina for her part would listen to Donna’s concerns, Donna’s father had also passed away and her mother had remarried. Donna’s step father, while not the reprobate Dewey was, was a less than desirable choice. By Donna’s account he was a two-bit con man who ran a used car lot and cheated on his taxes. her mother had been having health problems and her step dad was less than supportive.
One night after a party where they had both had a little too much to drink, Katrina told Donna about Dewey. Donna said nothing she just hugged Katrina and they fell asleep on Katrina’s bed. Katrina was confused. She had never had a boyfriend in high school and wondered about her sexuality. In a short time she had formed a bond with Donna unlike any other she had before. Donna was gentle and beautiful and understanding. When they woke up in the morning she turned over and kissed Donna on the lips. Donna gently pulled back and just stared at Katrina. Katrina felt her face get hot and then ran to the bathroom. Donna waited for her to come out and then sat her down and apologized for sending mixed signals. Katrina, still embarrassed, admitted she didn’t know what she was; straight, gay, asexual. Donna told her to take her time and figure it out and it didn’t matter to her what Katrina was. The connection between the two girls was forged for life.
Four years went by in a flash. Donna graduated and took a job in Buffalo with her eye on graduate school, Katrina was off to fulfill her obligation to the US Navy. She loved the order and the structure of the service but after three years as an intelligence analyst she became restless. She put in for a transfer to Special Warfare/ Special Operations. She fit all the requirements and her record was spotless. She was accepted and shipped off to SEAL prep school.
She had never been so exhausted in all her life. The training was hell. She lost fifteen pounds in two weeks because she couldn’t take in enough calories to replace the ones she had burned off. One cold morning during a 1000 meter swim she her legs started cramping. She paused in the water and tried to work them out. She was just about to try to continue when the skiff pulled up alongside her and Farrelly, one of the instructors grabbed her by the collar of her wet suit and tried to pull her into the boat. She thrashed and tried to get free and then he grabbed her by the arm and pulled harder. The pain shot through her shoulder as it separated and she screamed. She found herself in the bottom of the skiff with tears in her eyes with Farrelly looking down at her in disgust. All she could see was another man seeing weakness and vulnerability. She stood up and using her good arm broke Farrelly’s nose with the heel of her hand.
She could have stayed in the Navy, sitting at a desk, but she was embarrassed and angry. They offered her a medical discharged and she took it.
She returned to the Penrod’s to lick her wounds and consider her next step. She spent hours on the computer, applying for jobs and sending out resumes. Just when when was beginning to get frustrated she got a reply for a job she barely remembered applying for. The add had been vague, computer analyst for a security company with only an email address for a contact. She got a call from a Mr. Rogers and took the train to New York to meet him. There were more questions for her than details about the job during the interview. She asked if there would be a follow up interview and she was told no, there would be an aptitude test.
The test was more a less a psych evaluation. It started off easily enough but as she went on the questions became more and more ambiguous. She was seated alone in a small nondescript room but she felt as though she were being observed. After the test no idea what the job was or what it paid or even if she was being considered. She chalked it up to an odd experience and then went home.
Just then the kid came back to his seat, spilling part of his beer onto the aisle. Out of the corner of her eye Katrina could see him look her way. Just go about your business, asshole, she thought to herself.
Two weeks after her interview, just when she had stopped thinking about it, she received a call from Mr. Rogers. He said she had done very well on her interview and test and asked if she could come back to speak to Mr. Hammond, the president of the firm. She hadn’t been offered so much as an phone interview from anyone else so she decided to check her curiosity and go back to New York.
It wasn’t so much another interview with Hammond as it was a brief, and still vague, description of what they did at Hammond Security. She was offered a job as an analyst. He told her the reason that there wasn’t a load of information about the job given up to that point was that the firm did mostly corporate security and they handled a lot of sensitive information. Without any other prospects she gladly accepted.
The company set her up with a small, comfortable apartment in one of the more gentrified areas of Brooklyn, only one subway change from the office in Manhattan.
After eighteen months of sitting in a cubicle and combing over data and financial reports Mr. Rogers called her into his office. He said they had been watching her and thought she might be ideal for a new position.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, you will be a mole in a company we have been hired to keep an eye on,” he had said.
Katrina knew better than too ask a lot of questions. She had been developing a feeling that the firm did more than computer analysis. Rogers had told her early on that discretion was a key to staying on and moving up at Hammond. He asked her if she had any reservations or moral objections about what she was being asked to do.
“No, I’m good,” she had said.
And so she began her career in corporate espionage.
She had several assignments where she was placed in different companies by a phony employment agency, given a back story and an objective and all of them went off without a hitch. Her handler, Mrs, Nelson, coached her on how to dress, how to move and how to interact with the people she would be spying on. Two years later word came down that Mr. Hammond wanted her to go out to California for a “special” assignment. Again this prompted a meeting with Mr. Rogers who asked her if she was ready to take the next step and move up a pay grade.
She was to fly out to San Francisco and pose as a buyer for some secrets being sold by a disgruntled Vice President of a software company. She was picked up at the airport by a middle aged man who said very little. The man dropped her off at a shopping center and gave her the keys to a car. In the trunk of the car she found a briefcase with half a million dollars and a .22 caliber pistol with a suppressor. There was also an envelope with instructions and phone numbers in the briefcase. She made the contact and met the VP in a motel room. He never saw it coming as he was staring into the briefcase, hypnotized by his own greed and self righteousness. Katrina flew back to New York that night and found her first six figure bonus in her bank account.
It struck her as odd that none of this really bothered her. The man had pissed off the wrong people. Not that he deserved to die in a seedy motel room, but there was always going to be fallout when you flew too close to the sun. Still she wondered why she felt almost nothing as she pulled the trigger and put a bullet in the back of his head.
After that she went back to her normal job as a corporate mole, the slight, unremarkable brown haired girl, slipping in and out of jobs while gathering information and stealing secrets. She visited the Penrods at Christmas time, telling them that her job was just a lot of boring computer work but she liked it and liked living in the city.
She had kept up correspondence with Donna. They exchanged emails and letters from the time they had graduated on. Donna had even come to see her when she came home from the Navy with her tail between her legs. Katrina had gone to Donna’s wedding and right away found something off about her husband, Gary. After Gary got caught swindling people out of their life savings in an elaborate pyramid scheme he lost his brokers license but somehow got enough seed money to get into real estate. Katrina had told Donna, in as gentle terms as she could, that Gary was trouble. Donna got defensive and Katrina let it go. It came as little surprise later on when Donna told her that Gary had opened up a strip club and gotten involved with some bad people. She was frightened. Gary had at first denied being involved in anything illegal. and then when Donna pressed him, he threatened her. That was all Katrina needed to hear, she was off to Buffalo to help her friend with a bag full of money and a few concealed weapons.
She managed to extricate Donna from her dilemma but had to kill a crooked police lieutenant in the process. Then there was the private investigator who she almost killed, who ironically helped them in the end. At first she thought that Donovan was just some trigger happy, hard luck ex cop. In the end though she realized he was trying to do the right thing, even while he was supposedly working for Gary and his associates. Plus there was something about his eyes, an earnestness and a sadness that she couldn’t forget.
Killing Gary had almost been enjoyable. Granted she didn’t have to do it, he had given up all of the copies of the DVD that implicated Donna in a crime, but one thing she had learned at Hammond was not to leave any loose ends. Besides, he had called her a dyke. She hated that word.
Donna was now safely tucked away in White Plains, where she worked at a bank under a new name. They still talked occasionally but Katrina knew that Donna was still disturbed by all of the violence and mayhem that had occurred. The way she looked at Katrina now was different. She still loved her like a sister but she also seemed a little put off by what Katrina had become. Katrina hoped that time, things might go back to the way they were, but in the back of her mind she knew they probably wouldn’t.
She came back to New York and dedicated herself to her career. One day last month she got a call from Anne Penrod who told her her aunt was trying to reach her. She reluctantly called her aunt and was told that her mother had died. Her aunt tried to play it off but Katrina knew what had killed her; alcohol and her inability to function as an adult in this world. Her father had held her together through being a military wife, through child birth and then he was gone. Her mother had fallen apart after that, but not without help.
Using the resources at Hammond it wasn’t too hard to find Dewey. He had moved to Schenectady and gotten three DUIs before he lost his job as a school custodian, of all things. The idea of him around kids made Katrina sick to her stomach. He was now tending bar at some dive in the shadow of the GE plant.
The train pulled into Schenectady at 7:15 PM, only fifteen minutes late. The rain had stopped but the gray sky was even darker now with the day waning. After a quick trip to the ladies room where she retrieved a locker key that had been taped under a sink she went out into the lobby and checked the locker. The keys were inside. She retrieved them , shouldered her bag and went outside. She walked partway down the lot and pressed the remote. Lights blinked from a small dark sedan parked halfway down the row. She approached the car and popped the trunk. Under the carpet in the spare compartment was the gun, wrapped in a plastic bag. She stuck it in her bag and closed the trunk. As she walked to the drivers side door she saw her traveling companion by the entrance to the station. He was swearing into a cell phone and when he spotted her he gave her the finger. She really wanted to walk up to him and punch him right in his wind pipe but she wanted to get in and out of Schenectady with as little drama as possible.
She stopped at a little Italian restaurant for dinner. She killed some more time driving around and then at a little after eleven she made her way down to Lower Broadway and set up just outside the parking lot of Eddie’s Tavern. The street was a dead end, or rather, had been an entrance to part of the GE complex that was now mothballed. It was a pedestrian-only gate as it went under the railroad tracks and into what was left of the plant. It reminded her of the neighborhood where she had lived in Rochester. Dirty old buildings and boarded up bars surrounding the shell of some factory. Funny how Dewey always gravitated towards these places.
Two cars in the parking lot, including the one she knew Dewey was driving, unregistered and uninsured. She checked the mirrors, the street was otherwise deserted. She looked around and found a dark spot by the boarded up building next to the bar not too far from Dewey’s car. She could wait there or in the car. It might be hours, but she had waited this long. Or she could go into the bar, make it look like a stick up. She had waited this long though, and a few more minutes or hours for Dewey to be alone, would be worth it. Either way Dewey was going to die tonight and it felt so right. There would be no dramatic speeches, no explanations, no chance to confess his sins, just one in the chest and one in the head. That’s all the bastard deserved.
Copywrite 2014 David Coleman