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Unfinished Tales
by Mark Sumner

Mark Sumner says:
A couple of years ago, historical mystery writer Marella Sands and I collaborated to write a pair of King's Quest novels. They were done in a great hurry (the first one in less than ten days), and the compressed time frame didn't allow for a lot of real discussion, but I still felt pretty happy with the results.

Along about the same time, I started taking film classes at a local college. Before long, I had finagled Marella into co-authoring a screenplay that I could produce as a student film. But the project that had started out as something to be shot on a shoestring budget grew into an action-adventure spectacular, complete with a helicopter chase, exotic locations, and the requisite number of explosions. I definitely couldn't crank the film on my Super-16 equipment, and with no Hollywood agent (or experience) Marella and I had zero progress in moving the screenplay.

A few months ago, I picked up the screenplay and decided that there was a good alternate history novel hiding inside. Shorn of the action-adventure theme, there's something here about paranoia, politics, and maybe even the meaning of freedom. It's a book all decorated in sepia tones and low light.

Rough wood and steel-reinforced concrete. It's a story without the explosions, but with more heart.

Maybe I should pull out the Super-16 after all.

Mark Sumner: Touched By Fire
The southbound train was slow to leave the station. The engine's coal-fired boiler was deep in its sixth decade, and the numerous patches and welds along the curved iron flank could not hold back a trickle of rusty water at every seam. Both the wheels and the rails they followed showed long years of heavy use and little maintenance. Still, the fire was stoked and the pressure slowly built.

Far down the long row of tall, unpainted cattle cars, two grey-uniformed soldiers slammed close a sliding door. One of them fitted the thick bolt into the door lock while the other took the opportunity to remove his soft hat and wipe the sweat from his forehead. Barely seven in the morning and it was already stifling under a sky that promised a furnace by noon.

The soldiers turned and took a last walk alongside the train, testing each door as they passed. They reached the forward car without incident, tossed a pair of hasty salutes toward the engine's unseen crew, then turned toward a battered truck parked near the long wooden station. Before the train cars had begun to move, the truck had rolled away down the dirt road.

For a few minutes the motionless tin was attended only by a red-tailed hawk that circled slowly overhead. Then a small figure emerged from the yellow weeds that fronted the track. Albert Little, known around those parts as "Little Polecat" for the white stripes that early malnutrition had left along the sides of his dark head, walked the same path that the soldiers had followed a few minutes before. Like them, he paused at each car, but Albert tarried longer in his task. He pressed his young face to the raw boards of each car and peered through cracks to the shaded interior for several seconds before moving on to the next.

He had examined barely a third of the total length when a belch of sooty smoke mingled with steam spilled from the ancient engine. With a ground-shaking groan, the wheels began to turn. There were clanks and thumps as the long line of wood-sided cattle cars drew taut and began to follow the steamer down the rail.

Albert hurried in his task. He outpaced the slow moving train to peek in on one car, then a second, then a third. At that point, the boy's progress brought him hard against the wooden platform. He hesitated there a moment, looking up at the dark windows of the station house, but before a single car had passed Albert had made his decision. He scrambled up onto the platform and resume his examination.

As the train grew faster, Albert began to trot. He caught another car, looked in, then hurried to the next. His bare brown feet drew dust from the weathered boards in puffs that mimicked the dirty clouds above the train. He was giving each car a bare glance, but there were only two cars remaining and already the train's increasing speed had forced him into run.

Albert hurried to the next car, glanced in, and turned for a final sprint. His mouth dropped open and he surged forward. The far edge of the platform was scant yards away. Albert measured the distance in his mind. He could make it. The gap closed to five yards. To three.

A hand reached out and snagged Albert by the single suspender that remained on his hand-me-down trousers. The thin strap parted with an audible snap, but the suddenness of the action threw Albert from his feet and sent him sprawling painfully across the grey boards.

"Hold there, Pole," called the owner of the hand. "You gonna run youself right into the weeds, boy."

Albert got his hands under his chest and lifted himself from the platform. His knees and palms were fairly singing with pain from being slapped against the rough wood. He looked up at the long, pinched face of the station master, then back to the train. The cattle cars were going past faster with every second, their wheels clicking over the rails. The first car was already a good twenty yards ahead.

"What you doing down here, Pole?" the stationmaster asked. "Does Wittinghill know you down here?"

Albert licked his lips and found the bright hot taste of blood. He tried to frame a reply to the tall man's question, but every passing car brought a rising panic beneath his thin ribs. It almost seemed that his heart was speeding in time with the train.

The stationmaster put a boot against Albert's back.. "You better answer me, boy. Does Whittinghill know you is away from the works?"

"Yessir," he said, his eyes still on the passing train. He turned his attention to the grey-haired man looming over him. "Mister Joseph, he give me a chore down to town."

The response surprised the stationmaster. "Did he? And why would he do that?" A sly grin came to his face. "Did he want you to go to the berry patch, Pole? Should I stop the train so you can climb on?"

Stopping the train sounded like a fine idea to Albert, but the suggestion that he might go inside one of those raw pine cars was enough to turn his complexion from chococate to dust. "Nosir. Mister Joseph didn't send me to take no ride."

The stationmster snorted, but he took his boot off Albert's back. "Then get up and get out. Whatever chore Whittinghill set you to, I'd wager chasing trains was no part of it."

As Albert got to his feet, the tail end of the long train swept past. He watched it go for a moment, brushed the blood from his lip against the back of his hand, then decided to risk a gamble. "I heard tell was a white man on that train."

The stationmaster's eyes narrowed. "What does that matter to you?"

Albert shrugged his shoulders, then reached quickly to keep his pants from slipping his narrow hips. "It jus' seem strange to me, sir. A white man riding to the patch." He hoped that none of the panic he felt had leaked into his voice.

The stationmaster ran a big-knuckled hand across his stubbled chin. "It's odd," he admitted. "But this one ain't the first. Doubt he'll be the last." The man's face tightened in a renewed scowl. "Now get from my platform before I hold you for the next train."

"Yessir," Albert replied quickly. Still holding his pants with his left hand he jumped from the platform and headsd toward town at a slow walk.

He went no more than ten steps before he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. The stationmaster had gone inside. When Albert saw this, he irmediately reversed direction and began to run back along the tracks. The combination of morning sun and passing train had left the rails nearly hot enough to scorch. With one hand at his waist and his feet skipping across the hot metal, Albert's run had a comic air, but the expression on his face was deadly serious.

He ran on past the platform and past the place where his inspection of the train had started. He kept running between trees made grimy with coal smoke to a place where the tracks were crossed by a small stone bridge. There Albert left the rails and scrambled up the bank to the road above.

A blue Mercedes sedan sat idling at the roadside with its reflective windows tightly closed and its teisel engine rumbling. Albert hurried up to the car and pulled open the passenger side door.

"Its the right train," he gasped against a chill rush of air conditioning. "He's there." Albert dropped into the cool seat and pulled the door closed behind him. He was so out of breath that several seconds passed before he remembered to ammend his statement. "He's there, Mister Whittinghill."

The man behind thhe wheel of the Mercedes was tall, but so spare that the sharp angles of his bones shown clearly in his face. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back from a high forehead and cream-colored kid gloves covered his stick thin fingers. "Are you certain, Albert?" the man asked. "Did you see him?"

Albert hesitated, and would have bit his lip were it not already sore from his earlier fall. "Nosir, Mister Whittinghill, I didn't. But Mister Samuel, he says there was a white man on the train."

"Samuel? Sam Billings?" A note of unease slipped into Whittinghill's cultured voice. "How did he come to tell you any such thing?"

lbert looked down at the floorboards and tried to still his nerves. He had been with Whittinghill for five years, and those years had been the best of his life. He was a more gentle man than any other Albert had come across. But this business him made him flustered. It took Albert a moment to put his tumbled thoughts into words. "I guess I was late, sir. The train got past and Mister Samuel catched me running after."

"And you told him what you were after?" This time the note in Whittinghill's voice was genuine alarm.

"Nosir." Albert shook his head. "I just ask him if a white man on the train. That all."

Whittinghill sat very still for a moment then gave a single brisk nod. "I suppose it can't be helped." He reachehed to the gearshift. "Come on, Albert. We have a train to catch."

The Mercedes bumped onto the road and headed off with a great deal more alacrity than had been shown by the departing train. Albert let himself sink into the cool biscuit colored leather, but he came newhere near relaxing. Once again he felt his heart hammering at his ribs. He might not be going to the berry patch, but he was not going home. Albert had lived most of his thirteen years in the basement of the big white house back of the Tipton Iron Works. No matter what happened this morning, there was a very good chance he would never see his small quarters, or the big house, again.

"How you going to stop him, Mister Whittinghill?" Albert knew he really shouldn't ask, but he was too nervous to keep quiet.

Whittinghill seemed unphased at the question. "Stopping them will be simple enough," he said. "We'll pull the switch to throw the train onto the Monteagle siding. It's wht happens after they stop that's apt to be a might tricky." With oneuhand on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, Whittinghill reached across

About Touched By Fire, Mark says:
I'm not sure we'll ever see these folks again. It's possible. Heck, "Polecat" might turn out to be critical, maybe even the real hero of the piece. I'm just not far enough along to know.

After this, we're going to swing back north and take a look at a War Department agent by the name of James Rook. He's currently waiting inside a concrete vault while faceless bureaucrats decide his fate -- an experience that's become part of his daily routine. In Rook's world, The United States of America is a poor, mean, decidedly gray sort of place where Vigilance Means Victory and real men have No Sympathy for Sympathizers.

Soon enough, though, we'll slip back across the border into a worn, dilapidated south and board that train bound for the berry fields. And eventually we'll find a place outside of Birmingham where there are very few crops to harvest, but a whole lot of planting's going on.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Sumner

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