Billy Keenen leaned back in the plush seat of the railway car, listening to the quiet whir of the electric engines as the train sped down the tracks. These were always relaxing times for the lawyer, an escape from the trivialities of the courtroom.
“Would you like something to drink?” a voice said, jolting him from his reverie. He sat forward in the chair and located the speaker. It was a woman in her early twenties with long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. She was wearing a bright green uniform with a nametag that said, ‘Hi, my name is Cindy.’ Billy smiled, realizing that this was just another benefit of riding first class—unlike the sorry sods riding coach near the back of the train.
“Yeah, I’d like a scotch on the rocks, but hold the ice.” He grinned, hoping she would laugh. She didn’t. “And could you bring me a pillow? My neck is starting to cramp from the long ride. Good thing we’re almost home.”
The woman nodded and moved off, presumably to gather the requested items. Billy turned and glanced out the window, watching as the countryside flowed past, broken only by the occasional farmhouse. He could barely believe the Eastern States had places like these left. It seemed that nowadays one had to go to New Zealand or Australia to see beauty of this magnitude, and in Keenen’s opinion the world was progressing too quickly for its own good. Humanity was destroying the beauty of the world for mini-malls and housing complexes, and before too long there would be nothing left to destroy. The world could use a few more clean environments and a few less—
The train suddenly shuddered beneath him, throwing him against the window and sending a burst of pain through his nose. He felt something run down his face and numbly realized it was blood. A woman screamed behind him and the safety lights started flashing a crimson red. And alarm was blaring somewhere overhead, and he clenched his eyes, waiting for the vibrations to die down. They finally did with a final jolt that nearly made Billy throw up. “Jesus, what was that?” he whispered, opening his eyes and looking around. Many of the other passengers looked shaken up and scared, but few of them seemed injured. They seemed like zombies in a cheap horror film, pale faced with blank expressions.
“Every…everyone please stay calm,” a woman—the same one that was supposed to get his drink and pillow—said. “We will exit in an orderly and calm fashion,” she said, though she seemed anything but calm. She moved over to the door (which thankfully hadn’t been damaged) and pulled it open. The passengers started moving off in a single file line, but the quiet held only until they stepped outside. Many of the people began screaming as they surveyed the rear of the train. Three of the cars were on fire, blazing brightly in the midday sun. Keenen sucked in a breath of air and cursed.
“Oh dear god, the other passengers,” a man—in his early forties Billy guessed—yelled, stepping out the railway car directly behind his. He wasted no time in sprinting to the distant burning cars. Billy took off after him, not quite sure what was going on. He didn’t get his wits back until they were standing by the flames and the man was yanking the door open.
“No, don’t—” Billy started yelling, but it was too late. The man disappeared into the car, replaced by a cloud of acrid smoke.
“What is he doing?” someone asked from behind Billy. He was numbly aware of a crowd gathering around, watching to see what was happening, but it was distant, as if he was in a dream. Billy wondered if he should go in to help the man, but didn’t know if he could. For all intents and purposes it seemed that the man had gone in with the intent of killing himself, and Billy had no intention of joining him.
He felt like a coward.
“Look!” another person screamed, pointing over Billy’s shoulder. A form emerged from the smoke, covered in ash and dragging two unconscious people. He pulled the people to the doorway and then disappeared back into the smoke. Billy lunged forward and pulled one of the people out of the train and onto the grass. It was a young girl, covered in soot. Years ago Billy had been a lifeguard, and he knew CPR. He used it on the young girl, and after only a few tries got her breathing again. She was still unconscious.
“He’s got more!”
Billy looked up just in time to see the man disappear into the burning car. No, he thought, praise him, whoever he is.
By the time the police arrived the stranger had pulled almost two dozen people from the burning railway car, and every one of them had been revived. He staggered out, carrying the last of the people, and fell to the ground. The crowd erupted into applause and converged on him, helping him to his feet. “The other cabins,” he mumbled, coughing and moving towards them.
“It’s too late,” a police officer said. The crowd hushed as the realization fell upon them. Billy looked over at the other cars, imagining all the people inside. “It was too late for them when the bomb went off. They all died on impact. The only people that could have survived were the ones in here, and thanks to this man they will.”
Once again the crowd began clapping. The man grinned to himself and was carried off into the crowd. Billy wanted to follow, but something beside the train caught his eye. It was where the man had fallen to the ground. He went over to it and picked it up. It was a wallet, covered in ash, and the picture inside was of the hero. The name below it said Jim Morgen.
So Jim, you’re the nameless hero then? He looked back at the crowd, but couldn’t pinpoint him. He was enveloped in the horde, and news trucks were beginning to arrive. Guess that means I’m not gonna be able to give it to him just yet. Should I give it to the cops? He glanced over at a few of them, leaning against one of their cars, and laughed quietly. Yeah right. If I gave it to them, then with any luck he would get it next century sometime. Besides, this way I can give it to him personally.
* * *
Billy didn’t make it home that night until well after ten o’clock, and his entire body ached. None of the passengers had been allowed to leave until they had all given statements and that had taken most of the day. Had the train arrived on course he would have been home at about five o’clock.
At least I’m on vacation now, he thought, stretching and heading for the phone. All he wanted to do was collapse into his bed and sleep for a week, but he had one more thing to take care of before he could. He dialed a number and waited for the person on the other end to pick up.
“Hello?” a muffled voice said. There was a scraping in the background as the man adjusted the phone.
“Hey Henry. How you been doing?”
“Not bad Bill, how about you?”
“Come on, man, don’t call me Bill. You know how much I hate it. It makes me feel old.”
“Uh huh, and you know how much I love it. Besides, you are old.” A yawn. “What took you so long to get home? I’ve been calling you all night, and you haven’t been answering. I was hoping we could go bar hopping.”
“No way, man,” Billy said. “I am just too tired. Maybe some time in the next few weeks. I’m on vacation.”
“Sweet. I’ll hold you to that.”
Billy smiled. Henry wasn’t the most charismatic person (probably why he spent eighty percent of the time in his work room surrounded by computers) but when it came to clubbing Henry was enigmatic. He refused to go alone though, saying it made him seem too desperate.
“Hey, Henry, can you do me a favor. I want to find some stuff about this guy’s wallet I found. You know, like directions to his house.”
“Did you consider checking the ID?”
“Very funny. Yeah, and I know the address. I just don’t know how to get there. Plus, I want some background.”
“Fine. It’ll take me about five minutes. Do you want to wait?”
“No, I’m going to bed. Just call about noon tomorrow. There’s no rush.” No, there isn’t. More than likely Jim won’t get out of the spotlight until about Wednesday.
“You got it. And then we can go clubbing tomorrow night afterwards.”
Billy laughed. “Maybe. And with any luck I’ll get you a good looking girlfriend.”
“That won’t be necessary. Remember Bill, I’m desperate. I’ll take anything.”
* * *
When Billy woke up the next morning it was about nine-thirty. The latest he had ever slept in, and yet he still felt tired. He yawned, stretched and then decided to take a long shower. It was a bright and sunny day, a day to be out and about. Once Keenen had finished his shower he moved off to the kitchen to take care of another urge. He was practically starving to death. He poured a cup of coffee (thanking himself for remembering to set the pre-timer last night) and started making some toast. He flipped on the television and began sipping his coffee. It was an early morning news broadcast.
“…early yesterday. Sources say a bomb was detonated in the last car of the train, setting fire to two others. There were forty-three people dead and twenty-one injured. The police say they have a number of leads being looked into. The casualties would have been significantly worse had it not been for the efforts of one man.” A picture of Jim Morgen flashed onto the screen, and Billy couldn’t help but smile. “James Madison rescued twenty-three people from a burning railway car…”
Billy felt his hand start to wobble and nearly dropped his coffee. The anchor was still talking, but Billy couldn’t hear her anymore. His stomach was turning, and he began feeling sick. But…that isn’t right, because his name isn’t James Madison. His name is Jim Morgen…isn’t it?
The phone began ringing. He got it on the third ring. “Hello,” he said weakly.
“Hey, Bill,” Henry said, sounding more somber than the previous night. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t wake you up or disrupt anything, but I couldn’t wait until noon.”
“Okay. Did you find anything?”
“Yeah. But I have a question for you first. Is this guy one of your clients?”
“No, I just found his wallet. Why?”
Henry sighed. “Because this guy has got a track record with the police a mile long. I was just gonna say that whatever they say this guy did, he probably did, so you had better drop the case.”
“Oh come on, Henry. Just because the guys guilty doesn’t mean I have to bail.” He sighed. “Actually, what they are saying this guy did is a really good thing and what you just said is kind of calming. At least it would explain why he lied about his name.”
“Why he what?”
“I’m serious here, Bill. This guy is bad news. Most of the stuff is petty, but there are a couple of bad things here.”
“Uh huh,” Billy said. So the guy decided to turn over a new leaf and save lives. I don’t think there’s anything bad about that. “Did you get me directions?”
Henry gave them to him. “Thanks, man, you’re a real life-saver. And I’ll even hold up my end of the bargain. Meet me at about nine o’clock.”
“Stacey’s bar?” Henry asked hopefully.
“See you there, man.” Henry hung up. Billy took a few minutes to finish breakfast and relax, and then started off toward the address he was searching for.
* * *
The apartment complex he came to was nothing like what he expected.
Jim Morgen/James Madison had saved just under two dozen people from certain death when no one else was willing to risk their lives—including Billy. Who would expect a hero (no matter what his past was like) to live in a dump like this? The building was run down, with at least a quarter of the roof sagging inward. Billy let out a deep sigh and looked at the driver’s license. It was the same address as the door he was standing in front of.
“Ah well, maybe it’s better on the inside.” He knocked lightly on the door and then waited. A gunshot went off somewhere to his left and some kids began screaming from the right. There was no answer, so he knocked harder. Still nothing. I don’t think he would still be with the news people, unless he’s at an interview. Maybe he’s just a really heavy sleeper.
He banged his fist against the door.
It fell open.
Billy hated intruding on people. It just never seemed right. He examined the door handle for a moment and saw that it was mostly broken away. There was a large bar lock at the top of the door, but it hadn’t been in place. Well, if he wasn’t using the lock, then he’s got to be home. Maybe I can just slip in and set the wallet on a table. He made up his mind and stepped into the house. The floor creaked under his footsteps, giving him the sense that it would fall under his weight.
The apartment was in shambles. The furniture looked like it was from the early forties and the table only had three legs. It was being held up with a stack of old magazines. An army of ants moved across the floor, picking away at a half-eaten sandwich (tuna fish maybe, but Billy couldn’t be sure). The floor was covered in trash, and the walls had broken spots showing just drywall. This guy needs a new home decorator. Billy almost started laughing.
“Anyone home?” he asked, moving a little farther into the apartment. A wooden chair sat beside the table, which was covered in notebooks and papers. Curiosity got the better of him, and Billy found himself moving to the table. One notebook was opened, showing a newspaper article taped onto the lined paper. Billy hadn’t read the article today, but the picture (a burning train) gave away what the article was about. The caption read, ‘Local hero saves fellow passengers lives.’ So the guy is something of an ego freak. Can you really blame him? I mean, he did save twenty-three people. I wonder if he’s got any more articles taped in here, Billy thought, stepping toward the notebook. He flipped back a page and felt his stomach flip.
Taped onto the page was a schematic of a train on grid paper (sickeningly similar to the train in the other picture) with arrows pointing to various points. One arrow pointed to the bottom of the rear cabin with the word “expendables” written in a flowing script. Another pointed to a front cabin (one behind Billy’s).
Horrified, Billy flipped another page. This one was covered in figures and symbols, most of which Keenen had never seen. There was one thing he did recognize on the page. Nitric Acid, a highly volatile chemical.
He continued flipping through the pages, seeing more newspaper clippings, most of which had to do with a hero (the names were occasionally different, some being James Madison and others being Charles Evrett, but the face accompanying them was always the same). And accompanying all of them was a section having to do with causing the accident to begin with. He saw a church, set on fire by a bumped over candle—which the notebook detailed the perfect place to set a candle to be knocked over—and a hero coming to rescue the people. A man who slipped—on carefully placed ice—into a river was pulled out by a hero. A young child choking on a small item—details on what item to use—was saved by a hero. And there was much more in the other notebooks.
Billy stepped away from the table, feeling sick, and saw another picture—cut out of a magazine—sitting next to the stack of journals. It showed a large hospital, and scrawled onto the bottom of the picture were the words Perfect Target.
“What are you doing?” a voice hollered behind him. Billy jumped and spun. Jim Morgen/Charles Evrett/James Madison was standing in the doorway with a gun in his hand. “Oh no, you’ve been in my books! Don’t you know how to knock? Those are personal!”
Billy opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out.
“God, looks like I’m going to have to kill you now,” the man said, aiming the gun. “I hate to do it but you leave me no choice.”
“Why did you do it?” Billy whispered. The ‘hero’ smiled grimly and lowered the weapon.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “Sometimes the world just needs a hero, and if I don’t do it someone else will.”
“But you killed all those people!”
“They were all expendable for the greater good. Just as you are.” He said it like a father explaining to his young son why rain falls
“But you can’t do this!”
“Oh yes I can. And I will. I can’t go through life like everyone else. I’m not like everyone else. I am better than them, and I want—no, I need something to distinguish me from the common fodder. You aren’t smart enough to understand, and I don’t expect you to. All I expect you to do is die quietly.”
“You’re a murderer. They will catch you, and they will kill you.” He felt his legs begin shaking and considered making a run for the doorway.
The murderer smiled and shrugged. “Maybe. But there is a key to life that you just don’t understand. It doesn’t matter how you do things just so long as they get done. They might kill me, sure, but it is better to die with immortality than drift into obscurity.”
He raised the gun again, and this time Billy didn’t get a word out before the trigger was pulled. He was dead by the third shot.