Like The Setting Sun

To celebrate his graduation from the academy and immediate hire, the new detective vacationed in the eternal city. He flew in on a Sunday and spent the week enjoying the tourist attractions, the food, the music. All the while, he was excited to return home, to protect the innocent, to bring some peace to the world.

On a whim, he booked a train to return home through the scenery of that country. The farms were colored like nothing he had seen and when the train passed by the ocean the detective was happy to be alive in a world of such beauty.

On his way back from the washroom, hidden behind the glare of the evening sun, he saw the body slouching over into the aisle, blood slinking down its neck.

The detective called for staff and announced to the traincar that riders must stay in their seats, a man had been killed. Oddly, there was no response from them. Even the other man in the row was sleeping peacefully. No matter. The detective set to the work of his new profession. He examined the body. There was no sign of struggle, but the throat was cleanly slit. Male, older, baggage undisturbed.

The staff manager arrived. "Alert the conductor and call the police station ahead," said the detective. "There's been a murder."

He paused. He had been taught that civilians often reacted poorly to death, but the manager only nodded absentmindedly. "Alright."

"And I need to talk to the staff who-"

"Pardon me." Here the manager raised his hand in a stopping motion. "Staff won't be able to perform their duties with constant interruptions."

The detective stared at him in disbelief. "Sir, a man has been murdered."

The manager looked at his watch distractedly. "Yes, I heard you the first time. You can ask questions of my staff, but you cannot become upset with them when they need to perform their other duties. And please, try not to disturb our riders so." He tipped his hat and walked away, leaving the detective to ponder if there was some cultural divide, yet he saw men and women of all races and nations on the train.

It only got worse. A staff member came to cover the body and the detective pulled out his notebook to question her. Had she seen anybody go into the car? She seemed to think about it while unfolding the blanket to cover the body. Then she said: "It seems like you have an unhealthy fixation upon this whole thing. What you want is peace, isn't it?"

"No, I want to catch his killer."

"Ahh. I see. You're worried for your own life." She draped the blanket over the sprawled body. He opened his mouth to protest that it was his duty to catch the murderer, but she continued. "I didn't see anybody come in. Who could be expected to watch for such things?"

The detective moved on, but the riders were no better. He gently shook to waking the other man in the row, elderly and small. "How does that old song go?" asked the feeble man. "'People die every day, just like the setting sun'."

"Sir, there's a killer on the loose. You're in danger until he's caught."

"I suppose you're right." The man shifted in his seat. He looked too brittle to stay warm as the light of the sun abandoned them. "But if it's my time, it's my time. I'll only suffer if I resist the truth."

The detective moved on to the food car at the back of the train. The server, a tall, gaunt man, stooped down to shake his hand. He listened thoughtfully to the detective's explanation without interruption. Finally, he asked: "Did the man struggle, at the end?"

"No", said the detective.

"Oh", said the server. "And what about his family? Were they made to watch?"

"If he has family, they were not with him. He rode alone."

A great and peaceful smile came over the server. "Then this is good news indeed. Detective, a victimless crime is a paradox, and we are without a victim."

"Without a victim!" the detective sputtered.

"He passed into peace, as will we all."

Something broke inside the detective. "Everything about this is wrong", he said while jumping to his feet. "Something is horribly wrong on this train."

He marched back through the entire length of the train. He passed through the car of the dead man and had to shoo away children crawling over the body blanketed like a ghost. He passed through cars full of riders and shouted for anybody, anybody with information about the murder, to come forward. Mothers shushed him and fathers shrugged. He marched through the staff's sleeper car while the staff manager harangued him for disturbing the peace. The detective ignored him and reached the engine car.

In the engine car sat another tiny old man, this one in a conductor's hat, watching a map on a screen, surrounded by a bank of dusty controls.

"Hello", said the detective. "I'm hoping you can explain something to me."

"I can try," replied the conductor.

"What's wrong with this train?" asked the detective. "Nobody's bothered that a man has died. Nobody's worried that the killer is still among us. Something's off."

The conductor sighed. "I was afraid you'd feel this way. For a detective, you certainly aren't observant."

The detective said nothing. The conductor spoke with gravity and the detective was ready to learn of the clue he had missed, the piece that would unlock the puzzle.

"Tell me. When did you board this train?"

"Only an hour ago", admitted the detective. "I had barely boarded when I saw the body."

"I thought so," the conductor said gently. "This train has been roaring away for much, much longer than that. The killer has been among us since the beginning. The victim is only the latest in a long line. Many men like you have tried to find the killer, to no avail. My staff and I are wiser. We make our peace with it."

The detective started to protest and for the first time, the conductor raised his voice.

"Detective! Are you blind to the thousand issues on my train? Have you not seen the shivering of my cold riders? Many of whom have taken on incredible debt for this journey? Or their children, who are morally defunct? Or my staff, who must serve a hundred masters? Your focus has been myopic. If my staff were to solve every other problem on this train, then the last enemy would be the killer. Until then, we must concern ourselves with every affair. Please, return to your seat, and pity the living."

Properly chastised, the detective went back to his seat. He apologized to the staff manager. He gave his own blanket to the feeble passenger. He watched the blue afterglow of the sun turn to black. Far in the distance the mountains were crowned with stars. He counted them again and again until he fell asleep. Later, much later, the killer opened the door. He walked through the lightless car without hesitation or uncertainty until he stood over the detective. His work was performed quickly but elegantly. Then he left the car and resumed his work on the rest of the train.