Samuel Stretch’s long spidery legs moved in giant strides over the desolate landscape of Bonethwaite Moor. His body leant into the wind that cut across the moor like a scythe and let nothing grow higher than the coarse tufts of brown marsh grass that spread in all directions as far as the eye could see. With his left hand he clutched a carpet bag against his chest. With his right, he clasped his hat to his head, from beneath which long strands of dark hair streamed, like the billowing tails on his coat. His pale face turned frequently skyward and his anxious coal black eyes examined the thick grey clouds that oozed from horizon to horizon. He cursed himself for trusting the landlord at the Green Dragon. An hour’s walk at most, the landlord had said when Stretch had enquired about Jacob Fosser’s cottage. A man could be there and back before dusk. Stretch’s pocket watch told him that he been walking for nearly two hours and there was still no sign of any cottage. Everybody lied to a debt collector.
Nevertheless, he strode on, determined that Jacob Fosser would be evicted that night, storm or no storm. Fosser’s cottage belonged to the bank. The papers in Stretch’s bag proved it. Possessions, Stretch mused, were the root of all misery. A man thirsts after possessions and before he knows it, like Fosser, he is in debt. For himself, Stretch possessed only two things: his pocket watch, which he counted as a necessity for a man who travelled as much as he did, and a tin whistle that he had found by the side of the road on his way to evict a retired parson who had been living beyond his means.
As he walked, Stretch felt the wind suddenly fall away so completely that the air became still and silent. The clouds ceased their constant drift across the sky and now motionless, pressed down heavily on the narrow space between heaven and the earth. It was as if the world had stopped and was waiting for something to happen. He paused, head cocked to one side, listening to the unsettling silence that was eventually broken by a distant rumble, long and low like stampeding cattle. Thunder, Stretch thought. But unlike thunder, the rumbling persisted. His eyes scoured the horizon. Featureless before, but now Stretch perceived a minute speck against the distant skyline, a quivering black dot that every now and then flashed red and gold. As he watched, the dot expanded into a dark line that writhed about on the margin between earth and sky like an angry snake and, upon seeing the line grow longer and thicker, Stretch surmised that whatever it was, it was coming towards him.
As it twisted and corkscrewed across the ground getting nearer and nearer, its features became more distinct and Stretch beheld a steam locomotive, belching thick black smoke and pulling a long line of wild, cavorting carriages. His heart began to race. This was no ordinary train. This was a train that ran without rails; a train pulled by a locomotive that crashed into the earth again and again, each time making the ground shudder, before bouncing back into the grey sky and sloughing fountains of black earth, sparks and burning soot. He felt an urge to run. But where to? The wet ground sucked at his feet and held him fast. Before he knew it, the ghastly apparition was upon him, filling the air with the sound of screeching metal and exploding earth.
As the giant engine hurled itself into the air above where he stood, Stretch could see across the empty footplate to an open firebox and saw that it was full of twisting, translucent shapes whose screams caused him to press his hands to his ears.
‘Please God,’ Stretch prayed, as stones and wet sods of ripped turf rained down upon him. ‘Let this devilish machine pass me by.’ But he prayed in vain. As the last carriage careered past him something hard grabbed his arm, yanked him into the air and deposited him so roughly on the viewing platform at the end of the last carriage that the air was knocked from his lungs.
It was several moments before he could recover his breath, during which his eyes were squeezed shut and he experienced his surroundings through the choking smell of hot sulphur, burning rubber, and a searing heat that surrounded him on all sides. Meanwhile, the train continued its lurching progress throwing him this way and that. Without thought, he reached out blindly to steady himself. His fingers closed around a hand rail that surrounded the platform; a rail so hot that his eyes sprang open and he released it immediately with a yelp. He now saw opposite him the creature that had snatched him from the moor; a creature that stood at least eight feet tall with a shining black carapaced torso like that of an insect. Its two legs, also insect-like, ended in vicious looking pincers which clicked and clacked as the beast constantly shuffled to steady itself against the train’s chaotic movement. For arms it had long clawed tentacles that snaked and twirled constantly as if it had no real control over them. The head though almost human, had the black multi-lensed orbs of a fly. Balanced on top of the thick coarse hairs that covered the scalp, was a peaked cap with the word GUARD emblazoned upon its rim in gold letters.
‘Tickets please,’ the creature buzzed, clicking the claws at the end of its arms impatiently.
‘But I have no ticket,’ Stretch croaked.
The creature’s nostrils flared. ‘No ticket,’ it shrieked. A black claw prodded at Stretch’s chest. ‘No one rides without a ticket.’ Tiny wisps of smoke rose from Stretch’s coat where the creature had prodded and he could smell singed fabric.
‘Please. I have no ticket. It was not my doing to catch this train. Let me off. I beg you. Let me off.’
The creature shrieked again, this time with glee, and danced around on the platform mimicking Stretch’s feeble pleading, its feet clacking away in a merry dance. ‘Let me off. Let me off,’ it squealed. ‘But this is the Last Train, Debt Collector. No-one gets off the Last Train.’
The guard’s pincered foot kicked the door to the carriage open and Stretch was shoved roughly through. The sulphurous smell and the heat were even stronger inside the carriage where he found himself pressed upon by hundreds of strange gelatinous creatures, like those he had seen in the firebox, They thrashed through the air, snapping at each other and at Stretch with tiny mouths lined with needle sharp teeth. Stretch turned to escape but his way was blocked by the guard who stood leering over him.
‘These are your new travelling companions, Debt Collector. These are the Souls of the Damned. Don’t you like them?’
Some souls bit at Stretch’s fingers, drawing blood. Others clung to his hair and clawed at his scalp. Razor teeth slashed at his coat which was soon in tatters. The silver whistle, until now forgotten, fell to the floor. The guard buzzed, scooped up the thin shiny cylinder and held it up to his eyes for closer examination while Stretch continued to flail away without success at the Souls of the Damned. A clawed tentacle reached out and looped around the snapping creatures and flung them against the side of the carriage.
‘What is this?’ the guard growled waving the whistle in Stretch’s face.
‘A whistle,’ the debt collector replied sucking at a bloodied thumb that had been bitten through almost to the bone.
‘For making music,’ Stretch explained.
The guard held the whistle to the side of his head and shook it. ‘I can’t hear any music,’ he said. ‘Show me,’ he ordered and thrust the whistle at Stretch, who began to protest.
‘But I haven’t played in years and my hands are a mess,’ he said.
A claw clamped around his wrist and squeezed until he winced. ‘Play it,’ the guard growled.
Stretch took the whistle with trembling hands, put it to his lips and blew. Nothing happened.
‘Play,’ the guard bellowed. Stretch tried again. This time a short note, then another. Then, as his fingers began to flicker and dance along the whistle, a tune emerged. The biting and scratching lessened and very soon the souls of the damned were still and silent and the carriage ceased bucking and rearing. But whenever Stretch stopped playing the chaos resumed. So he played on. He played till his lips were cracked and raw and the tips of his fingers were sore and numb. Then, just as he began to fear that this would be his eternal fate, the guard called out. ‘Enough.’
Stretched stopped playing and almost immediately the damned souls began to stir but this time the Guard sent them cowering with a sweeping glare before turning his attention to Stretch.
‘You are a lucky man, Debt Collector. Your music calms the damned,’ he said, indicating with a sweep of his claw the creatures around him. ‘It makes them forget the engine’s furnace that lies in wait for them. It makes them more agreeable to their fate. It makes them more...’ he paused to gather up an unfortunate soul in his claw. ‘...more manageable.’ He tightened his grip on the wriggling creature until it was still and lifeless before letting it fall to the floor where its peers fell upon it in a frenzy of feeding.
‘Do you want to live, Debt Collector?’ the Guard asked watching the pandemonium at his feet. ‘Do you want to return to your miserable existence?’
‘Yes,’ Stretch answered.
‘Very well, you shall - but at a price of my choosing.’
Stretch cringed as the guard rested an arm across his shoulders and directed him back out of the carriage and onto the viewing platform.
‘You shall play this whistle every evening,’ the guard explained, ‘from the moment the sun touches the earth until the sky is fully black. For that is when the firebox doors are open and the damned become most agitated. But wherever you are, they shall hear your tune and will be calmed. Do this and you shall live. But if you should forget our agreement, even once, you will take your place on the Last Train. Is that a deal?’
‘Yes,’ Stretch cried.
‘Then the deal is struck,’ the guard said and hurled Samuel Stretch over the handrail, into the night and back to his miserable existence. ‘Pray for your sake,’ the guard called after him, ‘that you do not forget.’
They came for Jacob Fosser at three in the morning, six men in black uniforms wielding batons. They smashed through the door to the cottage, dragged him from his bed and threw him into the back of their truck that drove through the rest of the night and all the following day. When he was eventually dragged over the tailboard to land awkwardly on the dusty earth, the sun was beginning to set. He was in a compound, surrounded by barbed wire. There were more black uniforms, shouting and prodding at a long line of confused people like himself. ‘Get in line,’ they shouted waving and prodding with their batons. ‘Get in line.’
The line filed past a table, where a bespectacled clerk with slicked back hair checked Jacob’s name against a long list and told him to hand over his valuables. ‘Don’t worry,’ the clerk said, without looking up. ’You’ll get them back afterwards.’
‘After what?’ Jacob wondered and filed slowly forward with the others towards a low brick building with no windows, only one door, and a tall smoking chimney at one end.
As the line shuffled along, someone began to play on a tin whistle. Jacob paused and looked around in search of the anonymous musician and saw, on a hillock beyond the wire, a tall, tail-coated figure with long black hair that streamed in the breeze, and fingers that danced upon a thin shiny tube that he held to his lips. He raised his hand in salute to the lone player whose music he found strangely calming. Moments later, his hand still raised in salute, Jacob Fosser was finally swallowed up by the low brick building with no windows and a constantly smoking chimney.