Metro is reminding Red Line customers of a major capital improvement project starting Saturday, November 25, and continuing through Sunday, December 10. . . . [T]he Takoma Station will be closed to replace a mainline interlocking, a location where trains cross from one track to the other.
— WMATA announcement, Nov. 20, 2017
I was just locking up my office in the National Museum of Natural History when I heard the sound of heels on the hallway’s polished marble floor. I looked up to see a man and a woman — both dressed in dark business suits — approaching.
“Dr. Fitzgerald?” asked the man.
“I’m sorry?” I answered. My office is so deep in the bowels of the building that I don’t get many visitors — and certainly none who so obviously appear to be with some branch of law enforcement.
“You are Dr. Simon Fitzgerald, famed Smithsonian paleontologist, aren’t you?” the woman said.
“Yes, that’s right. What’s this all about?”
“May we speak to you in your office?” she continued.
“Of course,” I said. I unlocked the door and ushered them in, clearing books and fossils from atop the two chairs that sat across from my cluttered desk.
“Sorry for the mess,” I said as I moved a pile of petrified trilobites.
“I’m Byrd,” said the woman once she’d taken a seat. “This is my partner, Forrest.”
“What are you?” I asked. “FBI?” There was no reaction.
“CIA?” I offered. “NSA? TSA?”
“No, Dr. Fitzgerald,” said Forrest eventually. “We’re none of those things. We’re MTP — Metro Transit Police — and we need your help.”
“Metro Transit Police?” I said. “Why on earth do you need me?”
“ ‘Why under earth’ might be more appropriate,” Forrest said. “About 10 years ago we started noticing some anomalies on Metrorail.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Trains were breaking down. Rails were cracking. Insulators were arcing. All of the subway system’s deferred maintenance was finally catching up with WMATA. It’s been pretty grim since then.”
“We’re here to tell you, Dr. Fitzgerald, that Metro is in perfect operating condition,” Byrd said.
“I find that hard to believe,” I said. “Entire sections of the system were shut down during the SafeTrack Surge. Right now, the Takoma Park station is closed for repairs.”
Forrest opened his briefcase and tossed a photo on my desk. “Tell me what you see, Dr. Fitzgerald,” he said.
The image showed a dark orifice of a familiar configuration. In the foreground was a figure in a hard-hat, giving it scale. “That’s a subway tunnel,” I said. “Yours, I imagine.”
“No, not ours,” Forrest said. “Maintenance workers discovered it while inspecting the Green Line in 2008.”
He flipped more photos at me. “Orange Line, 2010. Blue Line, 2012. Red Line, 2016.” Each showed similar openings.
“You’re an expert on prehistoric worms, correct, Dr. Fitzgerald?” Byrd said.
“Are you telling me that a massive worm did this?” I said, incredulously. “Like in the movie ‘Tremors’?”
“Never seen it,” Forrest said. “We keep meaning to rent it but just haven’t had the time.”
“It’s true that certain prehistoric worms grew quite large,” I said. “Websteroprion armstrongi — a so-called Bobbit worm — had massive snapping jaws. But the largest fossil specimens are three feet long, not 30, and it died off 400 million years ago.”
“Well something’s down there,” Byrd said. “We want you to help us find it.”
“And it’s been down there for a decade?” I said. “How have you kept it secret? Why have you kept it secret?”
Forrest leaned forward in his chair and spoke in a low voice. “Can you imagine the panic that would result if the public knew there was a gigantic, dirt-eating worm churning through the Metro system? Whenever there’s an incident, we come up with a plausible cover story — ‘single-tracking’ or ‘capital improvements’ — and dispatch a team. Right now, we have reason to believe the worm or worms are active near the Red Line.”
“And that’s why you’re replacing a mainline interlocking?” I said.
“Yep,” Byrd said. “ ‘Mainline interlocking.’ There’s no such thing.”
“How do you send in the teams so quickly?” I asked.
“Well, we have them positioned throughout the system,” Byrd said. “In fact, you’ve seen them.”
“Escalator repairmen,” she said. “Every single Metro station escalator repairman is part of a crack MTP worm-searching team.”
“You mean they’re not really fixing the escalators?” I said, astonished.
They both started laughing, Forrest so violently that Byrd had to slap him between the shoulder blades to help him catch his breath.
“Have you ever seen them actually fix an escalator?” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
It was the first thing they said that actually made sense.
That was a bit of fiction, but here’s a fact: You can help needy Washingtonians this holiday season through The Washington Post Helping Hand. We’re raising money for Bright Beginnings, a preschool that helps homeless kids and their parents; N Street Village, a shelter and support network for women experiencing homelessness; and So Others Might Eat, which offers meals and more to poverty-stricken Washingtonians.
To learn more, or make a donation, visit posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.