Hello, readers. It’s our favorite day of the month – FICTION FRIDAY.
Read on for today’s story which was inspired when I wondered “What if one of those pretend robbery events became a REAL robbery?”
They paid to have someone rob them.
It sounds crazy, right? But their friends had spent their anniversary at a resort called Crooked River Ranch. One of the activities was a dinner on a train stopped by masked bandits who robbed them.
“It was like being in a western,” their friend said.
After arranging the childcare for their sons and reserving a room at the resort and a place on the Saturday night dinner train, things rolled along.
Central Oregon’s perfume of juniper and dust greeted them in the parking lot of the resort. It felt later than nine when they settled into the studio unit overlooking a field of sage brush. Not that they saw it then, but it became clear in dawn’s light.
A day of exploration ignited his journalistic curiosity and she went along for the adventure as had always been the case. Somewhere her mind cataloged the experiences and visual displays, creating a lesson plan for future students, although she couldn’t have vocalized any of the ideas in that moment.
Their friends were right about the train. It looked like something out of a western movie. The engineer, conductor, and waiters dressed in period costumes. Six cars and a caboose stretched behind the coal car, although the engineer assured everyone, “That’s for show only. We use clean electricity for power.”
Three dining cars sat between what must be the cooking cars, one in front and one behind the window-laden dining cars.
“Welcome aboard, ma’am,” the conductor tipped his hat, a red felt square with a black bill.
For once, she didn’t feel old when someone called her ma’am. She felt special. A waiter wearing a white apron that brushed the top of worn boots waved them into a two-person booth. Across the marrow aisle, a family of four occupied the nearest table. The parents stared out the window at the “station” while the children—a girl maybe ten and a boy a year older—gaped at the surroundings.
She looked around and judged the setting authentic. Velvet wallpaper with rich burgundy hourglasses raised on a gold-hued background covered the upper half of the walls. Thin boards painted dark brown to match the table leg suggested wainscoting.
The waiter returned with two glasses of water and took their drink order, leaving behind two placards that displayed their dinner choices of chicken (for her) and fish (for him).
Her husband whispered notes into his memo app and took a few photographs of the interior. She imagined the article he would write for his magazine column would be highly entertaining. People continued to board until all the tables were occupied.
“All aboard,” came the stereotypical cry from the platform between their dining car and the one behind it.
A waiter served drinks, straightening his black suede vest with one hand while tucking the circular serving tray under his other arm. “Dinner will be served shortly.”
Instrumental music featuring banjos and fiddles provided a white noise backdrop for the chatter of the car’s occupants. She sipped her drink, watching the kids at the next table from the corner of her eye. Her husband swallowed beer from the frothing mug and muttered into his phone.
The food came on a trolley pushed along by one waiter while another pulled it.
“How’s the fish?” She asked, wrinkling her nose at the faint aroma which turned her off most seafood.
“A little dry but the sauce is delicious. Your chicken?”
“Surprisingly moist and tender. These potatoes and carrots are interesting. Rosemary and thyme, but something else.”
He hummed and took a bite before shaking his head. He’d never been great at identifying flavors. Scents were more his domain.
The conductor came through and gathered tickets. “We’re approaching the red rock canyon,” he said. “The train will take on water and then return to the station.”
Dinner plates were swept away and replaced with a simple glazed sponge cake, hers lemon and his orange. She slid her plate across the table, and he exchanged with her. Lemon had always been a favorite of his.
They’d barely taken a bite when the wheels screeched. The train jittered to a stop. Time for the main attraction. She wanted to rub her hands in anticipation, but she set her fork down across the dessert plate instead.
A scream came from the car in front of them, amplified when the door between the cars slid open to admit the bandits. Two men wore bandanas over their lower faces, as she expected, but they also had ski masks covering the rest of their face. Black cowboy hats pressed down, although she saw lanks of dark brown curls over the leather vest of the one who came through the door first.
“Hands up!” he called.
“This is a holdup,” said the one behind him. This voice was a little higher. “Cooperate and no one needs to get hurt.”
The boy across the aisle snickered. His mother elbowed him. The girl stared with wide eyes, turning in her seat to watch the men slither closer. Both held handguns in one hand and black sacks in the other.
“Put your valuables and wallets into the bag. Nice and easy.” The first man pointed his handgun at an elderly couple two tables away.
“That wasn’t part of—” The old man’s words cut off with a splutter when the robber slammed the butt of his weapon on the tabletop, an inch from the man’s dessert plate.
Her eyes widened. That seemed a little over the top. She noted it for the review she’d write for the resort website and her Yelp account.
“No talking!” These menacing words were laced with a bit of an accent. One she’d heard often from her native Spanish speaking students.
She narrowed her eyes and studied the man’s hands. They were smeared in grease, the nails black as if they hadn’t been washed in weeks.
People followed the orders. She considered her diamond stud earrings and wedding ring. Both items seemed too small to hand over, too easily lost or misappropriated. She tucked her hands under the table. Her husband’s hands were under the table too, but he held his phone. Was he trying to record the robbery?
Another person held their phone at table level and pointed it toward the robber. The second bandit grabbed the phone and flung it across the car. It smashed against the highly polished wooden bar where three waiters stood, agape, hands raised. One’s leg fidgeted, causing his apron to dance inappropriately.
A hollow expanded in her stomach and filled her throat. Actors wouldn’t destroy someone’s property. Would they?
The woman whose phone had been knocked away flushed and wiggled to standing. The outlaw pointed the gun at her, a hand’s breadth from the center of her chest.
“You can get a new phone,” he said, “But getting a new heart out here in the desert? Not so easy.”
She paled and dropped like a stone back into her chair.
“No phones!” He scowled and scanned the room. “If I see ‘em, they’re gone.”
She blinked at her husband. He shifted in his seat, and she prayed he had put the phone out of sight.
The dark-handed man approached them. “Wallet and valuables.”
Her husband pulled out his wallet and dropped it in the bag. She shook her head, tried to say something and swallowed hard.
“Let’s see that ring.”
She didn’t want to give it up. They’d only bought it last year while traveling in the Caribbean.
The barrel of the gun fixed on her. She twirled the ring, spinning it against her clammy hands and finally tugging it off. The bandit offered his palm, the half-filled sack melting onto the tabletop.
“What’s that? A carat? More?”
She licked her lips. Still, her voice abandoned her.
“1.69 carats,” her husband said. Of course he remembered the exact weight. How could he sound so blasé? It must be his journalistic training.
“What about earrings?” The gun waved toward her face.
“Not great quality,” said her husband. Really? Was that a ploy? Or was she just learning that her tenth anniversary gift was sub-par?
“Give ‘em here.”
Her fingers trembled as she unscrewed the backs. The gunman pocketed the jewelry in his jeans. Jeans? Those were not appropriate for period costumes. Why didn’t someone notice this before and stop them from boarding?
Time dragged. Her head spun. Silence pounded worse than a migraine. Eventually, the men left their car and another bandit from the first dining car leaned against the doorway, handgun pointed at them on a gentle scan. No one played hero. That’s not what they signed up for. But robbery? It has sounded like a good idea on paper.
After the men left, the train jerked forward. She glanced out the window. A black pickup raced across the sage-scattered field before it disappeared over a rise.
“License plate was covered with mud,” her husband said. She hadn’t even thought to look at it.
The waiters came by to collect dishes, apologizing for the unscheduled robbery. When the train slowed a few moments later, they saw a group of horses beside the tracks. The conductor stopped the masked men before they boarded. See? Why hadn’t they done that earlier? One of the false bandits pulled out a cell phone, to call the authorities she hoped.
A buzz of conversation started. Several cowboys with bandanas around their necks strolled through the car. “Are you alright? Is everyone okay? Does anyone need medical assistance?”
Once the train returned to the station, the interesting date night became a debriefing with the local sheriff’s department. Her husband shared his video files. She described her jewelry. Only then dis she remember the ring was insured against theft and loss.
How convenient. If she had to pay to be robbed, the insurance company could pay too.
Have you ever been to a “fake” event like this?