3 A M (Episode 3; The Basement)

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“I found this whole scrapbook,” Megan explained as she stood in Michael’s office, setting a pile of cuttings on his desk. “It’s like my aunt was collecting anything that mentioned the train-line that runs past this place.”

“Is that right?” Michael asked, glancing at the yellowing piece of old newspaper in her hands. “Well, I guess everyone has to have a hobby, and there’s not much else to be doing in a place like this. The old social center closed down six months ago, and that left a void in the lives of a lot of people around here.” He stared at the cuttings for a moment, with a hint of unease in his eyes. “You should probably chuck those away,” he added. “It’s kind of creepy keeping them around.”

“Most of them are about the train crash that happened here ten years ago,” she continued. “You know the one where an airport express train and an empty commuter train collided head-on in the middle of the night?”

“I remember,” he replied. “I was here.”

She turned to him.

“What?” he asked with a shrug. “It’s not exactly easy to leave Marshall Heights. The place seems to have its own morbid gravity.” Reaching into his pocket, he took out a coin and dropped it into the Self-Pity Jar.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t be bothering you with this.”

“It’s fine,” he replied. “I welcome anything that breaks up the monotony of my days.”

Sighing, he dropped another coin into the jar.

“It’s almost as if she was obsessed,” Megan continued as she looked through the pieces of paper. “There’s just cutting after cutting, and copies of all the official reports. I remember when she kept phoning me up because she wanted help using the internet. I never understood why she was suddenly so keen on technology, but now I realize it must have been because she was trying to do more research.”

“I remember her bugging me about the connection,” Michael replied. “Apart from this office, her flat was the only place in the building that got wi-fi. Go figure, huh? I could never get the signal to work.”

“It’s one thing to take an interest in things,” Megan continued, looking through the paperwork, “but she seems to have been going into the whole thing in minute detail.” She looked at another newspaper headline:

Eight killed in early morning rail disaster.

Then another:

Mystery over Marshall Heights derailment.

“I get that it happened more or less right outside her window,” she continued, “and it must have been a huge shock, but still… I can’t help wondering if somehow her interest was a sign of something else, maybe something unhealthy. Maybe I should reconsider the idea that she was suffering some kind of emotional problem. She might have been depressed. Living in a place like this could drive anyone to the brink.”

Michael dropped another coin in the jar.

“What if she was clinically depressed?” Megan asked. “What if she needed someone, and none of us came until it was too late?”

“She was in her sixties,” he pointed out.

“So? Depression can strike at any time.” She sighed. “Maybe that asshole was right at the police station. We could have done more for her.”

She stood in silence for a moment, thinking about all the times over the past year when she could have made a little more effort to keep in touch with Patricia: a quick visit wouldn’t have been impossible, or at least some more emails, maybe even a phone call. They’d exchanged a few likes and comments on social media, which had lulled Megan into thinking that she was still in her aunt’s life, but now it was clear that something else had been happening, something that her aunt had kept hidden from the world. She’d always considered herself to be a good niece, but now she suddenly realized that she’d done almost nothing.

“I was asleep when the crash happened,” Michael said suddenly. “In the middle of the night I was woken by the sound of this huge impact, and metal being ripped apart. There was an explosion, too, when one of the carriages hit an electrical box. I’ve never heard anything like it before and I hope to God I won’t again, because when I sat up in bed I actually thought a plane had come down or something like that, or maybe there’d been a gas explosion. When I went to my window and looked out, I saw flames everywhere and for a few seconds I just couldn’t comprehend what was happening.” He stared into space for a moment, as if he was reliving the whole scene. “And then soon there were sirens. So many sirens, and a little while after that the media arrived. A helicopter came too, hovering over the place and blasting all the wreckage with light. There was so much damage, it took then two weeks to clear all the wrecked carriages away. There even had to be a survey of this building, to make sure that the impact hadn’t caused damage to the foundations.”

“It’s a miracle only eight people died,” Megan pointed out.

“If it had happened during the day,” he continued, “there would have been a lot more casualties.”

“Did they ever explain the crash?” she asked, leafing through the scraps of newspaper in search of an answer.

“The commuter train was on the wrong line.”

“But they never explained how it ended up there,” she continued, skimming through another of the cuttings. “Somehow it had switched from one line to another, and then it suffered a loss of power, but I’ve been looking through all my aunt’s notes and there doesn’t seem to be anything about an official investigation.” She turned one of the pieces of paper over and saw a handwritten note in her aunt’s familiar scrawl:

I shouldn’t have called. It’s my fault.

“Called who?” Megan whispered.

“You know what I think?” Michael asked. “I think it was ghost-spotters.”

She turned to him.

“The stretch of track that runs past this place is called Suicide Alley,” he continued. “Has been for as long as I can remember, and I’ve researched this place extensively. Thirty-nine people have committed suicide in the area over the past decade alone. It’s not that odd to see trains going slowly past the building because there’s been yet another report of someone down on the lines. The railway people keep trying to strengthen the fence, but somehow folk manage to get through. So the authorities set up infra-red sensors and cameras, but the equipment always malfunctions. It’s almost as if the tracks themselves are sabotaging any attempt to cut the death-rate.” He paused for a moment. “The problem is that because of all these suicides, there’s kind of an urban legend about the place.”

“People think the ghosts of all the victims are still out there?”

“You wouldn’t believe how many people come down and spent whole nights over by the fence,” he continued, “freezing their butts off while they wait for a chance to snap a photo of one of the damn things. I see them sometimes, perched out by the fence with their cameras and their timetables. The whole thing’s pretty weird if you ask me. Most of them are pretty well-behaved, but there have been times when one or two have let their enthusiasm run away with them and ended up trespassing. I’ve even seen a few on the tracks, just standing around with their cameras, waiting. It’s not impossible that some ghost nut was down there on the night of that crash, accidentally knocked one of the old switcher mechanisms, and then either didn’t realize what he’d done or saw the disaster and was too scared to confess. Hence the two trains ending up facing each other on the line.”

“But my aunt -”

“Her flat overlooks the tracks,” he continued. “So does mine, actually. I’ve got to admit, sometimes at night I stare down there for a few minutes. I’ve never seen anything, of course. I mean, there’s nothing to see, but still… It’s kind of hypnotic after a while, and almost romantic.”

“Romantic?” she asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“The thought of all those dead souls out there, wandering the tracks where they died while the world goes on in the distance. It’s complete bullshit, of course, but I can understand how the idea might be enticing. To people of limited intelligence, of course.” He paused. “You know, I think I need to get an Arrogance Jar. Sometimes I can be a little dismissive of people who believe in ghosts and ghouls.”

“There might be something out there,” Megan pointed out. “We can’t claim to know everything about how the world works.”

“Maybe your aunt just had too much time on her hands. Maybe she got into it a little too much.”

“But you don’t think…” She stared at another of the cuttings for a moment, before turning to him. “You don’t think something could have happened to her down there, do you?”

“Like what?”

“Like she got too close and…” She paused for a moment, putting together the horrific scenario in her mind. “What if she saw something, or thought she saw something, and then she went down there and, I don’t know, either she got mugged or… worse, she might have been hit by a train and no-one even noticed.”

“I think you’re clutching at straws,” he told her. “It’s one thing to keep an eye on things from a window, but why the hell would she actually go down there and start trespassing on the tracks? She wasn’t an idiot, was she?”

“She was smart,” Megan replied, “but she also cared about other people. If she thought someone was in danger and no-one else was helping…”

“Dead bodies don’t just get left by the train tracks without anyone noticing,” he replied. “Maybe in a horror movie, but not in real life. Even if something happened in the middle of the night, she’d have been seen in the morning. I have no idea what happened to your aunt, but I think we can discount that theory. Which is a good thing, because as theories go, that one is particularly macabre.” He stared at her for a moment. “I don’t think you’re at the stage yet where any answer is better than none. You don’t have to give up hope that she might turn up alive.”

“I hope you’re right,” she said, setting the papers down, “but I have to be sure.”

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