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The Christmas Train

Langdon was a journalist, a globetrotting one, because it was in
his blood to roam widely. Where others saw only instability and
fear in life, Tom felt graced by an embracing independence. He'd
spent the bulk of his career in foreign lands covering wars,
insurrections, famines, pestilence, virtually every earthly
despair. His goal had been relatively simple: He had wanted to
change the world by calling attention to its wrongs. And he did
love adventure.

However, after chronicling all these horrific events and still
seeing the conditions of humanity steadily worsen, he'd returned to
America filled with disappointment. Seeking an antidote to his
melancholy he'd started writing drearily light stories for ladies'
magazines, home-decorating journals, garden digests, and the like.
However, after memorializing the wonders of compost and the miracle
that was do-it-yourself wood flooring, he wasn't exactly

It was nearing Christmas, and Tom's most pressing dilemma was
getting from the East Coast to Los Angeles for the holidays. He had
an age-old motivation for the journey; in LA was his girlfriend,
Lelia Gibson. She'd started out as a movie actress, but after years
of appearing in third-rate horror films she'd begun doing voiceover
work. Now, instead of being cinematically butchered for her daily
bread, she supplied the character voices for a variety of
enormously popular Saturday-morning cartoons. In the children's
television industry it was accepted that no one belted out the
voices of goofy woodland creatures with greater flair and
versatility than golden-piped Lelia Gibson. As proof, she had a
shelf full of awards, an outrageously large income, and a healthy
share of syndication rights.

Tom and Lelia had hit it off on an overnight flight from Southeast
Asia to the States. At first he thought it might have been all the
liquor they drank, but when that buzz burned off a couple hours out
of LA, she was still beautiful and interesting— if a little
ditzy and eccentric—and she still seemed attracted to him. He
stayed over in California and they got to know each other even
better. She visited him on the East Coast, and they'd been a
comfortable if informal bi-coastal item ever since.

It might seem strange that a successful Hollywood lady would go for
a nomadic gent who ran through passports like water, could spout
off funny if lewd phrases in thirty languages, and never would be
financially secure. Yet Lelia had tired of the men in her circle.
As she diplomatically explained it once, they were complete and
total lying scum and unreliable to boot. Tom was a newsman, she
said, so at least he occasionally dealt with the truth. She also
loved his rugged good looks. He took that the mean the deep lines
etched on his face from reporting in windswept desert climates with
bullets flying. In fact his face was more often than not down
in the sand in observance of local safety

She listened with rapt attention to Tom's tales of covering major
stories around the globe. For his part, he observed with admiration
the professional way Lelia went about her loonyvoice career. And
they didn't have to live together year-round? a decided advantage,
Tom believed, over the complex hurdles facing couples who actually

He'd been briefly married but had never had kids. Today his exwife
wouldn't accept a collect call from him if he were hemorrhaging to
death on the street. He was forty-one and had just lost his mother
to a stroke; his father had been dead for several years. Being an
only child, he was truly alone now, and that had made him
introspective. Half his time on earth was gone, and all he had to
show for it was a failed marriage, no offspring, an informal
alliance with a California voiceover queen, a truckload of
newsprint, and some awards. By any reasonable measure, it was a
miserable excuse for an existence.

He'd had an opportunity for a wonderful life with another woman but
the relationship had, inexplicably, fallen apart. He now fully
understood that not marrying Eleanor Carter would forever stand as
the major mistake of his life. Yet, ever the man of action, and
wanderlust upon him once more, Tom was taking the train to LA for

Why the train, one might ask, when there were perfectly good
flights that would get him there in a fraction of the time? Well, a
guy can only take so many of those airport security search wands
venturing into sacrosanct places, or requests to drop trousers in
front of strangers, or ransacking of carry-on bags, before blowing
a big one. The fact was, he'd blown a big one at La Guardia
Airport. Not merely a nuclear meltdown, his detonation resembled
something closer to the utter destruction of Pompeii.

He'd just flown in from Italy after researching yet another bit of
fluff, this time on wine-making, and imbibing more of the subject
matter than he probably should have to get through the ordeal of
crash-learning soil diversification and vine rot. As a result, he
was tired, cranky, and hung over. He'd slept for three hours at a
friend's apartment in New York before heading to the airport to
catch a flight to Texas. He'd been given an assignment to write
about teen beauty pageants there, which he'd accepted because he
enjoyed blood sports as much as the next person.

At the security gate at La Guardia, the search wand had smacked
delicate things of Tom's person that it really had no business
engaging, socially or otherwise. Meanwhile, another security person
managed to dump every single thing from Tom's bag onto the conveyor
belt. He watched helplessly as very personal possessions rolled by
in front of suddenly interested strangers.

To put a fine finish on this very special moment, he was then
informed that a major warning flag had been raised regarding his
ID, his hair color, his clothing choice, or the size of his nose.
(They were never really clear on that actually.) Thus, instead of
flying to Dallas he'd be enjoying the company of a host of FBI,
DEA, CIA, and NYPD personnel for an unspecified period of time. The
phrase "five-to-ten" was even bandied about. Well, that, coupled
with his exploited physical parts, was his absolute limit. So, the
lava poured forth.

Langdon was six-feet-two and carried about 220 pounds of fairly
hard muscle, and real honest-to-God steam was coming out his ears.
His eruption involved language he ordinarily wouldn't use within
four miles of any church as he launched himself at the security
team, grabbed their infamous search wand, and snapped it right in
half. He wasn't proud of his violent act that day, although the
rousing cheers from some of the other passengers who had heard and
seen what had happened to him did manage to lift his spirits a

Thankfully, the magistrate Tom appeared before had recently endured
airport security of an extremely overzealous nature, and when he
gave his testimony, she and Tom shared a knowing look. Also, the
red flag raised at the security gate had been, shockingly,
a mistake. Thus Tom only received a stern warning, with
instructions to enroll in anger-management classes, which he
planned to do as soon as his uncontrollable urge to maim the fellow
with the search wand subsided. However, the other consequence of
the blowup was that he'd been banned from placing his miserable
person on any air carrier that flew within the continental United
States for the next two years. He hadn't thought they could do
that, but then he was shown the appropriate statutory power in the
microscopic print of the airline's legal manifesto under the
equally tiny section titled "Lost Luggage Liability Limit?Five

And that's when he had his epiphany. Being unable to fly, his usual
and necessary way of traveling, was an omen; it had to be a sign of
something divine, something important. Thus he was going to take
the train to LA. He was going to write a story about it, traveling
by rail from sea to shining sea during the Christmas season. He had
a grand motivation, beyond spending the holiday with Lelia. Tom
Langdon was one of the Elmira, New York, Langdons. To those with a
keen knowledge of literary history, the Elmira Langdons brought to
mind Olivia Langdon. Olivia, besides having been a lovely,
resilient, if ultimately tragic person in her own right, gained
lasting fame by marrying the loquacious orator, irascible
personality, and prolific scribe known to his friends as Samuel
Clemens, but otherwise known to the world and to history as Mark

Tom had known of this familial connection since he was old enough
to block-letter his name. It had always inspired him to earn his
living with words. For Twain had also been a journalist, starting
at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada,
beforegoing on to fame, fortune, bankruptcy, and then fame and
fortune again.

Tom, for his part, had been imprisoned twice by terrorist groups
and very nearly killed half a dozen times covering a variety of
wars, skirmishes, coups, and revolutions that "civilized" societies
used to settle their differences. He'd seen hope replaced with
terror, terror replaced with anger, anger replaced with?well,
nothing, for the anger always seemed to stick around and make
trouble for everybody.

Though he'd won major awards, he believed he wasn't a writer with
the ability to create memorable prose that would stand tall and
strong over the eons. Not like Mark Twain. Yet to have even a
marginal connection to the creator of Huckleberry Finn, Life on
the Mississippi,
and The Man Who Corrupted
a man whose work was timeless, made Tom feel
wonderfully, if vicariously, special.

Shortly before he died, Tom's father had asked his son to finish
something that, according to legend, Twain never had. As his father
told it, Mark Twain, who probably traveled more than any man of his
time, had taken a transcontinental railroad trip over the Christmas
season during the latter part of his life, his socalled dark years.
Apparently he'd wanted to see some good in the world amid all the
tragedy he and his family had suffered. He'd supposedly taken
extensive notes about the trip but for some reason had never
distilled them into a story. That's what Tom's father had asked him
to do: take the train ride, write the story, finish what Twain
never had, and do the Langdon side of the family proud.

At the time Tom had just finished a frantic twenty-hour plane
odyssey from overseas to see his dad before he passed. When Tom
heard his mumbled request, he was struck dumb.

Travel across the country on a train during Christmas, to finish
something Mark Twain allegedly hadn't? He had thought his
father delirious with his final suffering, and so his dad's wish
went unfulfilled. Yet now, because he could no longer fly in the
Lower Forty-eight unless he was fingerprinted and shackled, he was
finally going to take that trip for his old man, and maybe for
himself too.

Over almost three thousand miles of America, he was going to see if
he could find himself. He was doing it during the Christmas season
because that was supposed to be a time of renewal and, for him
perhaps, a last chance to clean up whatever mess he'd made of
himself. At least he was going to try.

However, had he known what life-altering event would happen to him
barely two hours after he boarded the train, he might have opted to
walk to California instead.

Excerpted from THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN © Copyright 2002 by
Columbus Rose, Ltd. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All
rights reserved.


The Christmas Train
by by David Baldacci

  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446615757
  • ISBN-13: 9780446615754