Danny Davies stood in front of the plaque at the Amtrak station. He read ‘This Mission Revival Station was built by South Pacific Railroad in 1908 to replace the original Davisville Depot which had served customers since 1868.’     

He gazed at the plaque fondly. He had already read it before, several times. Still, he loved the plaque, and he loved the station. It was so very, well, very…Californian. What with the stucco walls, embedded with colorful tiles and the arched walkways. He smiled. He loved this little town. Danny had bought here before the prices of real estate had gone completely out the roof. The small, 50’s bungalow was not in the ritzy part of town of course, but it was still, a perfectly acceptable middle-class neighborhood. He tried to avoid reviewing the real estate listings that tempted him to sell up. He had traveled around enough while in the Navy and wanted to be settled somewhere. Somewhere he wanted to stay. This was that somewhere.   
Smiling again, he tugged on his conductor cap. He checked that his nametag was fastened to his shirt pocket and did a last glance at a reflecting window. Giving a final yank to his thin, black tie, he was ready to start his shift. Danny was a conductor for the Amtrak line, and they didn’t appreciate sloppy employees or late ones either. He clocked in and was ready to go in a few minutes. This loop was the Davis to Sacramento and onto Reno. They would be back late that evening.    

After his six years in the Navy, Danny had acquired a number of things. Friends for one, some great souvenirs and the little bungalow. Most of his friends had gone into high-tech IT companies or well-paid security jobs. They either made fun of him for his railway job or shook their heads in disbelief.

     “Danny, with your skills set, you should be making six figures, easy,” his buddy Ralph would say. Then, “The railroad? Why?”   

   It was hard to explain. He loved riding the rails. How do you put that into words? Probably can’t and have it make any sense, he thought to himself with a chuckle. They all think I am crazy or stupid, or both. Oh, well. Can’t please everyone.

    “All aboard!” He shouted and blew his whistle, swinging up the metal steps; long, tan arms enjoying the stretch. He waved hello to Franklin, his teammate, known to his friends as Frumpy. They were both busy checking passengers were seated and luggage stowed. They would be making their rounds, punching tickets in a few minutes.    

  As Danny was working the aisle, he saw the same skinny young kid he had seen several times. The kid was maybe seventeen, all angles and bones, bad skin, a thatch of poorly cut black hair and cheap knock off jeans but, surprisingly expensive sneakers. Once again, he was clutching a large plastic bag from Mama Rosa’s Mexican Food. Mama’s face smiled out from the bag and her name was proudly announced in big, red letters. It looked to be full of to-go dinners.

    Could be wrong, Danny thought to himself, but I could almost swear those are Michael Jordan sneaks. Air-Jordon. Aren’t those about $150 each? Where does a kid dressed like that get money for shoes like those?   

   He said nothing, just clipped the kid’s ticket. “Looks like someone’s getting dinner!” He smiled affably.

The kid looked confused at first, then a little panicked, finally blurted out, “Si, dinner, si!”   

  Danny nodded again. Also, noticing the metal work around the kid’s front teeth he said to himself, Mexican national. He smiled and moved away.  

    When they stopped at the station a little past Sacramento, the kid got off. Danny watched him. Instead of following the passengers and going toward the rail station, he crossed behind the train, went across the tracks and into an empty field that led to nothing other than a large, abandoned warehouse. There were plenty of these along the rail line. Relics of the days when manufacturing was still done State side. The kid went behind a bunch of tall bushes and Danny lost sight of him.

     Where in hell is he going? There’s nothing out here. Danny had worked military police in the Navy, and done a bit of intelligence work. Friends still kidded him that he was nosy like an old lady. It was true. He even could be caught reading scandal rags from time to time. He shrugged his shoulders. He gets back on the train every week, he thought to himself. He doesn’t appear to be harmed or hurt in any way. Maybe I’m making something out of nothing. He shrugged. Let it go. He went to get a coffee and bother Frumpy.     

Frumpy and Danny were able to enjoy the brilliant California sunset – the sun going down in a big pink-orange ball, as the southbound train chugged slowly back home. Danny was picking his teeth with a toothpick and feeling good about life. He relaxed in the conductor’s seat and stared out the window. The low, green countryside rolled past. Little mom and pop gas stations/convenience stores still hung on in outlying areas. Bigger stores and gas stations dominated the larger towns.

     Later, home again, he plopped down on the over-sized, stuffed sofa and put his Diet Coke down, sticking his feet up on the coffee table. He rubbed the toes of both feet together, enjoying the feeling of soft, warm woolen socks.  The sofa, chairs and various other items in the house were care of his mom who loved to play decorator with his money. He couldn’t complain, she had been right. The oatmeal color was soothing after a long day at work and blended well with the mushroom color walls. The wide screen TV, his purchase sans any help from mom, occupied a position of authority in the middle of a large dark oak set of shelves. The rest of the spaces were covered with his knick-knacks from years of travel. 

     Danny turned on the TV and flipped through the channels with the remote. There wasn’t a lot on. Damn it, I might be forced to go start on homework. He frowned, why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Danny was about to complete a bachelors in Political Science at Cal State, Sacramento.

      He paused briefly on a news channel to see a short conference down in LA. Some very satisfied detectives were discussing their latest sting operation. 

     “We would like to say however, although this operation has been successfully completed, the war on drugs is definitely not over and unfortunately, it appears that any number of these operations are moving to other parts of the state.” The beefy cop moved aside to let some politician continue on with more happy remarks.  

Hmm, Danny thought to himself and switched to the baseball game. In the back of his mind, he was still considering that kid on the train. Danny would probably not have been so bothered if it had not been for the Mexican cowboy. This individual rode the same train and got off at the same stop as the kid; but different days and different times. However, the two looked quite a bit different.

     Several months before, Danny had been working the aisles, punching tickets. The first thing he noticed was not the person, rather the hat. A ten-gallon Stetson cowboy hat could be seen above the level of the seats. At first, Danny was mildly curious. Then he got to the customer and had to work to keep the surprise off his face. The man was small, Hispanic, wearing a hand tooled, turquoise Western shirt with all the piping and pearl buttons usually seen on  shop models in Western clothing stores. The shirt was a wonder of hand stitching with embroidery on the collar and cuffs.

Danny was impressed.  “Ticket, sir.” He smiled.   

   The man smiled back; silver fillings lined the outside of his front teeth. “Jes,” he replied to Danny and pulled the ticket from a front pocket with flourish.
  Danny bent to punch the ticket. It was then he noticed the tooled, hand-crafted alligator cowboy boots the man was wearing. He had to pause a moment. “Nice boots,” he said. He handed the ticket back.

     “Jes, I know,” the man grinned broadly. Danny nodded and moved away.  

    Jesus, he thought, the guy is dressed up like he’s going to the rodeo. How much did those boots cost him? He moved down the aisle but kept glancing back. Something about that guy made him uncomfortable. Like he’s holding onto some dirty little secret.    
The same guy showed up kind of randomly, about every two or three weeks on Danny’s  route. The western shirt varied but the boots stayed the same.  If I could afford a pair of boots like that, I’d probably wear them all the time too, Danny thought grumpily to himself. Ah, small touch of envy. He had to laugh at himself.

It was maybe the second or third time Danny punched the guy’s ticket that he noticed the tear drop. The tear drop was a tattoo under the man’s left eye. At second glance, Danny realized there was one large drop and then two smaller ones under that. Instinctively he knew these were somehow gang related but he had to wait until he got home to Google it.                                                                                 

 Continued Part II