I walked into the diner and found my favorite seat at the counter unoccupied, and better yet, with no one else sitting at the counter. I sat down and my second favorite employee there immediately placed a gorgeous steaming hot mug of joe in front of me. I smiled and she rolled her eyes. I was obviously not her favorite customer, but she was a damn fine waitress, so I put up with her occasional moods.
“Pie for the P.I?” she asked in a snarky tone.
“Whatcha got?” I said just to antagonize her.
Again, with the eye roll. “You know what we got, just tell me.”
“My memory is slipping, remind me.” I said after taking a sip of the hot dark goodness that was one of the essentials of my life.
She sighed. “This is Tuesday, so we have cherry, raisin, apple and blueberry.”
A voice came from somewhere in the back. “We are out of blueberry; the last three pieces went to the nuns in section two.”
I had noticed the humbly dressed table of ladies in the corner booth when I came in, but now I turned and raised my coffee cup to them. They noticed my motion. “How is the blueberry pie Sisters?” They were too polite to yell back at me, but they gave me a thumbs up in response. I turned back toward Daphne. “Daphne, how about you bring me a piece of your delicious raisin pie?”
“Ala mode?” was her only unsmiling response.
“Oh, better not, watching my pennies.”
As she walked away, I heard her mumble under her breath, “When aren’t you?’
A few minutes later I was happily and slowly eating my piece of pie, handmade on the premises by my favorite employee of the diner, Augustine, one of the finest bakers I have had the fortune to meet.
I sat and observed the people at the diner, just enjoying the ebb and flow of the place as I killed time waiting, never getting quite to the bottom of the cup, mostly due to the professionalism of Daphne rather than her love for me personally.
In less than a half an hour I was joined by my favorite person in the diner. She was not an employee; she was the employer, owner, manager and chief bottle washer of the closest non-chain diner to Disney World, my gal, Millie Mauser. She did not ask me about my pie, my cup of coffee, or even the service; she knew they had all been spectacular, as that was her standard, and her people always met her standard. “What is the plan for tonight Miles?”
My gal, always looking ahead. “Well I figured a movie and maybe a stroll over to that new resort area, maybe hear some live music.”
Millie nodded. “So, the typical Tuesday night, a cheap flick, then you seeing if you can get us in somewhere for a free show.”
“Only the best for my girl,” I said kissing her on the forehead. She loves me, and she knows I would spend money on her if I had it, but she also knows my business is slow. She loves to get in a few jabs at me once in a while anyway; it keeps our relationship fresh.
She was about to say something snarky when Daphne called out from across the counter. “Boss, Mr. Box is back. Is it okay if I give him the big table in the back again?”
We both turned towards the door where an older gentleman dressed in business casual attire had just entered carrying a cardboard filing box.
Millie looked around the diner, then at her watch, and nodded. “Sure. Even if he asks again, we shouldn’t need it on a Tuesday night.”
Daphne simply nodded and approached the man. We silently watched the exchange, and then Daphne led the man towards a large meeting room in the back where a table capable of seating ten was located.
“What’s the story there babe?” I asked with my head nodding towards the back.
“Oh, he has been coming in here like clockwork the last couple of nights. Saturday night he stayed in a booth and spread his paperwork out, and the next night he asked for a larger table, but we could not accommodate him. Last night we were slow though and let him spread all his paperwork out on the table in the back.”
“Receipts?” I asked, guessing he was trying to figure out his taxes to avoid paying money to Uncle Sam.
Millie shook her head. “I don’t think so, I checked on him once, and all the paperwork looked like letters, like he was trying to find something specific in them.”
My curiosity was piqued, and my wallet was dying of hunger from lack of feeding. I wondered if there might be case here. I stood up, and that is when Millie grabbed my arm. “I thought we were going out tonight?”
“We are, I am just going to introduce myself and see if he needs any help?”
Millie harrumphed and then stood up to join me. “Okay but if he needs your help, you start the case tomorrow.”
We never did go out that night. In fact, I never left the restaurant till the next morning.
“Hi Millie,” the old man said looking up from his piles of papers now spread out all over the large table.
“Charlie, this is my boyfriend Miles. He is a Private Investigator and wondered if you need any help,” Millie said sweetly.
Charlie had stood up and reached across the table to shake my hand. It was warm and strong, and I guessed he was in his 70s, dressed in a golf shirt and khaki pants. I could also tell he was a northerner by his lack of tan.
“Oh, I don’t think so, not unless he is an expert on Walt Disney World.”
I let out a low chuckle. “Well maybe not an expert, but I do know a lot about the place and its history.”
Charlie looked a bit surprised but went with the flow. “Well then, maybe you are the man for the job.” He motioned towards the spread out papers. “Why don’t you two sit down and I will tell you what I am doing down here in Florida with all this.”
I pulled out a chair for Millie and then sat next to her across the table from our impromptu host.
“I am from Michigan, but I lived down here once. After me and my buddy Frank got back from Vietnam, he had a friend down here working a huge construction job. It was Walt Disney World. We had been Sea Bees in the Navy, so we worked for Admiral Fowler dredging the Seven Seas Lagoon and putting in the central pillar in the Contemporary. We worked down here until the place opened. By then I wanted to go back to Michigan, but Frank stayed on. He did all kind of things for the company, but his favorite was building the tracks and getting the train operating. He even worked on the monorail for a bit.”
Frank paused and took a sip from his cup of coffee. “Me and Frank stayed in touch. Frank was really great. He would write me a letter at least every other month,” Charlie said motioning towards all the papers spread out over the table.
I decided to speak up. “So, what are you looking for in these letters?”
Charlie smiled. “I like that nice and direct.” He tapped a stack of letters closest to him. “Frank passed away last year.”
Millie made a sad noise. “Sorry to hear that.”
Charlie waved her off. “Frank had a great life. The letters were always positive. He had a lot of friends, traveled a lot, loved the jobs he had for Disney, and he fished an awful lot.” He smiled at that. Charlie looked as if he were lost in thought.
“So, what are you looking for in these letters?” I asked softly.
“Well, Frank donated his body to science. The medical school recently finished with him, and per the agreement he was cremated, and I was contacted about disposing of the ashes.”
I looked at him hoping he was not going down the path that I knew the Walt Disney Company would not like. Numerous times throughout the year in the parks rides and areas of the park were shut down due to someone spreading their loved one’s ashes. I had friends on the Custodial staff, and they had to get extra training and use a special vacuum and, basically, it is just a big pain to deal with. The place ashes were most commonly dumped: The Haunted Mansion. Some people just took the ride too literally. People are weird. Lucky for me; otherwise I would be out of a job.
Charlie continued, “Frank was a company man and would not want his ashes scattered, as that would cause a disruption in the parks.”
I gave an internal sigh but kept my face neutral.
“But he said he wanted his ashes scattered at, and I am quoting this, ‘on the water near where old number 4 broke down so often. Take the panic azimuth from the biggest tree and you will find the spot. I watched the 4th of July fireworks from here many a times’.”
I shook my head. That did not make any sense.
I nodded. “The train tracks don’t go anywhere near the water, let alone a good place to watch the fireworks from.”
“Yeah, I know, I have ridden that train several times over the last couple of days.” Charlie replied.
“What is he talking about, the ‘panic azimuth’?”
Charlie laughed. “That was an inside joke between the two of us. We were going through a land navigation course before we went to Vietnam and the instructors told us if we ever got so lost all we had to do was head on a bearing of 360 degrees, in other words due north, and we would find ourselves on a major road where we could walk back to base.” Charlie looked wistful for a few seconds. “Well, every time something went crazy over there,” he motioned outside towards the west, “one of us would ask the other which way the panic azimuth was. It always made us laugh.” Charlie smiled again.
I nodded. “I had inside jokes like that with my Army buddies.”
Millie looked at me surprised. I knew why; I hardly ever talked about my time in the military.
The table went silent for a moment, so I tried to get us back on track. “So, from the train tracks head due north from the biggest tree to the water.”
“I think,” Charlie said sounding tired.
I racked my brain trying to puzzle it out. I knew the property pretty well, having grown up around it, and I think I have been in just about every part, but this did not make any sense.
“I was thinking there was a clue in his letters. He wrote about building the train tracks, and he helped build the monorail as well, that’s near the water.”
I shook my head. None of this sounded right. I was missing something… “Would you mind if I sit with you for a while and looked over his letters?”
Charlie nodded, and I heard Millie give out an angry sigh that I was sure only I could hear. “I tried to sort them by year, but Frank never dated them, and I threw out the envelopes that came in, so no post mark. I think I got them sorted roughly by years, but I’m not sure.”
Millie got up. “Well you boys are going to need some more coffee, and I guess I’ll send Daphne home. It looks like I’ll be closing up tonight.”
For the next two hours all I did was try and come up with a system of sorting, which meant reading the letters and making sure they were in the right order. At one point I think Millie came by, handed me the keys, and had me lock the door behind her. Charlie gave up an hour later and went back to his hotel room. Me, I stayed, and read, and sorted, and read some more. Luckily for me they were all typed, on an old manual typewriter at first, and sometime in the 80’s old Frank switched to an electric. I read about construction projects and opening day attractions and tearing down old rides to make way for new ones. It seems Frank was a huge part of Walt Disney World construction history.
Unfortunately, he also rambled and did not stay consistent with his story line. So, it was not until I got to the most recent letters that I figured out what train he was talking about.
I took a short nap in a nearby booth and was woken up by Augustine, the greatest baker I had ever known and my favorite employee in the diner. “Cinnamon roll?”
I sat up and rubbed my face. She had already poured me a cup of hot joe. “Augustine, will you marry me?”
She smiled. “I am already married to Maximillian you silly boy,” she said as she went to get me the promised cinnamon roll.
I made my way into the bathroom and cleaned up, and when I returned to the large table, the pastry was sitting on the table along with a carafe of coffee. I shuffled the papers a little bit more, cleaning them up, putting them in the best order I could, then packing them into Charlie’s cardboard box. I had just gotten to the warm gooey center of the roll when Millie and Charlie joined me.
“You were here all night?” Millie said, not really asking.
I nodded, not wanting to talk with my mouth full.
“Did you figure anything out?” Charlie asked.
I nodded again and took a sip of coffee. “I think I have an idea where Frank wants his final resting place to be. Do you have a good pair of shoes? If so don’t wear them, this may get messy.”
An hour later we were at Fort Wilderness, the Walt Disney World campground, looking for the abandoned railroad tracks. Charlie had been both a construction worker and an engineer on the Fort Wilderness railroad and had been there on opening day in 1974.
The Fort Wilderness railroad used an actual steam powered locomotive that moved guests from the front of the campground to the rear (while the campground was only a mile deep, it covered about 700 acres of woodland). The problem was it was rather inefficient and a little unsafe, so it was only open about six years and the last couple rides were allowed only on special occasions. Sadly, it was replaced with bus service, which while more efficient and probably cheaper did not have the style of a real life steam train. I think Fort Wilderness lost something when it was decommissioned, and I would have liked to have ridden it, but it was before my time. I guess that is why I had forgotten it ever existed, but thanks to Frank’s letters and a couple of videos I found online I was able to guess where Engine number 4 broke down most consistently.
Breaking down was not exactly the problem, it was more running out of gas, due to having to refill the fuel tank and water tank to make steam and having a limited time in each stop to refuel while loading passengers at the same time. The engines most frequently quit when the train approached Bay Lake, the largest natural lake on Walt Disney property.
It took me and Charlie a couple of hours of tramping around the woods to find the old railroad bed and then a couple more to find the biggest tree that might have been there when Frank was driving the train. It would have taken a little less time, but Charlie left his compass back in his hotel room and I am a city boy, so the only way I know north is if it’s on street sign.
In the end Charlie was sure, deep down in his heart, that the little stretch of beach he found is where Frank would want his ashes to be scattered, but he thought it might be best if he did it first thing in the morning, just as the sun was coming up.
Charlie and I got back onto Ft. Wilderness early the next morning, and as the sun came up over the Cypress trees Frank was placed gently and with love by his best friend into the water. I stood back and let the man have his moment with his friend. I thought to my own friends and hoped I was a good enough friend to them that they would go through as much trouble for me when I died.
A couple of weeks later Millie got a letter from Charlie thanking both her and I for our help, in addition to sending me a nice check. It’s Tuesday again. Millie thinks we are going out to the cheap movies, but she’s wrong; I am taking her to a real nice sit-down meal and then a movie.
Other Miles Mitchell Mysteries:
The Walkaway Case
The Case of the Missing Mementos
The Missing Heiress