Nightwatch: The Kindness of Strangers
By Jeff Williams
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
“I’m lookin’ ou-ute at you today, brothers and sisters, all races, po-or and eye through the needle rich, and I see good people.” He stood atop a park bench, his breath flooding out in white clouds as he spoke. He wore a white, short sleeve formal shirt, and his brown pants were held up by a pair of brown suspenders. He raised his left hand to his dark red tie, which he had tied too short, the point of it stopping just above his ample belly. His right hand lifted a handkerchief to mop sweat off of his forehead, in the process pulling his thin comb-over into damp curling strings.
A group of about
twenty people, all of whom were dressed in thick winter clothing, stood in this
“Yeah, I see good people,” he spoke, and as he did, his expression curled into one of patrician kindness. “Good Christian people.” His warm smile grew wider. “Precious lambs of Gohd. How many of you good souls voted fo’ Brother Roo-z-velt in nineteen-hundred and thirty-two?” Several in the crowd raised their hands, and he warmly acknowledged them all. Nodding his head and closing his eyes, his lifted his chin so that the layer of fat beneath it almost smoothed away. “You was hoodwinked,” he said quietly and matter-of-factly, and a little murmur of surprise went through the onlookers. Two or three others joined, drawn by the people already standing there.
Simon Litchfield watched this from a discrete distance, from within a little grove of winter-dormant trees. If the speaker, Pastor Al Harrigan, had really wanted to find Simon, he could have spotted him, but it would have taken a little effort, and all of the pastor’s efforts were being focused on his sermon and upon his impromptu congregation.
“Yes, children of Gohd, you was hoodwinked, it’s true.” He opened his eyes, lowered his head, and glared intently at the crowd. “Understan’, no one is here to blame you. No one is here to po-oint the finga. You, you had good cause to be led astray. We were in a time of great trib’lation and sorrow, a time of want, a time of despair. We wondered abou-ute our nation, our future, our…our little ones, staring wide-eyed and hungry and wondrin’ why…why there was no food upon the table.”
Remembering Harrigan’s name from history, a history that had now changed, hadn’t been easy for Simon. The story of the assassination of John Nance Garner had been little more than an anecdote in lectures on Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Simon had been at a greater disadvantage having spent the first twelve years of his life in England. Even as Nightwatch’s primary civil engineer and (now) chief time troubleshooter had continued his rounds of the District of Columbia in December 1939, he’d continually wracked his brain trying to remember.
Virginia, he’d thought,
church man from Suffolk. “blah blah blah
It didn’t take long for the project manager, a Mr. Arlen Jeffries, to figure out that Simon knew what he was talking about. By lunch, Simon had walked the entire site and documented fifteen instances of practices and techniques that were blatantly unwise or unsafe (even by 1939 standards). At 5PM when the site shut down, Jeffries paid Simon under the table and then took him for a drink at a bar on the other side of town.
“Sorry to rush you out of there like that,” Jeffries had explained. "You're none too popular with Whitey and his boys, and, frankly, I'm a little concerned for your well-being." After their drink, they had walked out only to find a street preacher yelling at them, swearing, saying that unless they gave up demon rum, they were doomed. Just before Jeffries and Simon had parted, Jeffries told Simon a little story.
“The other day,” Jeffries said, “I’d gone to Montrose Park to eat my lunch. Y’know, to get away from those jokers at the site. And this dumpy little man came walking by. He dumped his dumpy little coat on the ground and jumped up on a park bench and started preaching like it was Sunday morning.” Just before leaving to return to the site, Jeffries heard the man give his name to another passerby. “Al Harrigan,” Jeffries said. “Sounds like a goddamn politician’s name!”
At the mention of the name, all of the hairs on the back of Simon’s neck rose, and he thanked Jeffries profusely for all of his help. The next morning, Simon hired a private detective--at considerable expense--to see if Harrigan was still in the District.
“Lord knows, you can be fo’given for buying in to Roo-z-velt’s pie-in-the-sky promises.”
“But now look at yo’selves,” Harrigan shouted. “Look around, look at the faces. How many of you owes your job to the WPA, or the PWA, or the AAA, AKA, QT, KKK?” Some in the growing crowd chuckled at this, and even Harrigan allowed himself a laugh and a wide grin. “How can you trust a man who names gov’ment agencies with a grammar school primer?” A few more laughed. “My brothers and sisters, you was hoodwinked, all right. Big man promised you freedom, promised deliv’ry from bondage, promised like Moses to lead you unto the promised land! Can I get an a-men!?”
“A-men, boy,” a man yelled back.
“Well, you are slaves,” Harrigan hissed, stretching out slave until it was three syllables long. “Big man FDR has led you further into bondage, has led you into Egypt, and there ain’t nothin’ but the Sahara ahead of ya! Who among you can love, honor, and, above all, fe-ar Almighty Gohd when you can’t even rely upon your own souls? You been hoodwinked, robbed of ya dignity, robbed of ya strength, robbed of ya hard-earned prosper’ty. Book of Ecclezastees 7:14: ‘In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of advers’ty consider--Gohd has made the one as well as the other so that ma-an may not discover anything that will be after him.’ We suffer, brothers, to love Him above all. We suffer, sisters, to see the way home as clear as the mornin’ sun! Most important, we suffer to test the strength and cou’age of ou-ur character.” Harrigan now bent low, his voice a loud growl. “Dost thou see the devil in Washington? Can I get an a-men?” A woman in the back of the crowd responded. “We must recall the spirit a’ self-reliance! We must reclaim the soul of this great nation from the jaws of idleness and sloth! Can I get an a-men?”
From the trees, Simon watched as the crowd (now numbering thirty-five), allowed itself to be whipped into a frenzy. It was a fascinating if disturbing sight. He was certain that few if any really agreed with Harrigan, but they were still getting caught up in his energy and obvious enthusiasm. Simon had seen this repeated several times over the previous three days as he’d followed the pastor from one impromptu sermon to another, always in a public park, always with him throwing his coat to the ground and standing on a bench railing against the “devil lately come to Washington.”
As far as Simon could remember from political science and history classes, the survival of John Nance Garner was likely, likely, to produce no major changes to the future. But that man who tried to assassinate him, the man who was now free to roam Washington, DC without so much as a cursory glance from city police (who were no doubt used to such park displays, especially in the age of the Great Depression) was a different case. Something had changed in 1939, something that was still relatively minor but with the potential to be much worse. Despite his comic, almost buffoonish nature, Pastor Al Harrigan of the Church of Greater Salvation and Spirit, Suffolk, Virginia, seemed to be that change, or at least the likeliest candidate Simon had encountered.
Simon took out a small, spiral bound notepad and looked at some of Harrigan's proclamations of the last few days.
FDR has deprived you of your souls. Roosevelt is the blessing of the eye of the tiger. He's Satan incarnate lately come to Washington. We must drive the evil out of the District of Columbia...
"I tell ya children, we must drive Roo-z-velt,
Satan incarnate, ou-ute of
“Amazing and sad, isn’t it,” a low, dignified voice said from behind Simon. Simon looked over his shoulder and saw a man dressed in the black clothing of a priest, complete with white collar and a small chain leading, no doubt, to a cross over his heart. The priest’s eyes, which were partially hidden by a wide-brimmed black hat, stared intently at Harrigan. “Something about this place," he said, waving his hands at the brown though stately trees, "it’s proximity to our hallowed halls over there,” he pointed to the top of one of Georgetown University’s main buildings, just barely visible behind the trees, “draws them like moths to a flame. And these poor souls listen. These poor souls listen.” He looked at Simon. Litchfield got a better look at the priest’s face, his gray eyebrows, the age lines next to the eyes and the corners of the mouth. But as the priest smiled, his expression changed almost immediately, and years seem to melt away from his sixty-five or seventy year old frame. “I take it you are not one of poor little lambs who’s lost his way.”
"Peter 3:14-18," Harrigan yelled. "'But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. 'And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.' But sanct'fy the Lord Gohd in yo-ur hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks ya a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; havin' a good conscience, that when they defame ya as evildoers, those who revile yo-ur good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.'" Harrigan lifted his arms up in emphasis as he shouted, "Do ya hear me, brothers and sisters? Peter said let 'em be ashamed! Let the evil-doers be ashamed! 'For it is better, if it is the will of Gohd, to suffer for doin' good than for doin' evil. For Christ also suffer'd once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to Gohd, bein' put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Sp'rit.'"
“Not with him anyway,” Simon spoke as the crowd cheered again. Then, considering his current situation, he added. “Now, I am a little lost, but for other reasons entirely.”
“Many are lost,” the priest said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, neat, black billfold. “I often wonder how much my students truly understand in their Theology classes. If, however, you decide to seek another way,” he pulled a business card from his wallet, “do not hesitate to call me or to attend services this week.” He handed the card to Simon, and as he did so, the priest’s face practically beamed with kindness.
“Thank you,” Simon spoke as he took the card, and he couldn’t help but return the smile.
"It is a fine December afternoon," the priest said. "Some hate the winter. As for myself, I see it as a time of renewal. As a way of our Lord reminding us that what appears dead is indeed alive with the spirit. Good luck in your walk, my son, and may you find your way home." The priest breathed deeply. "I bid you good day,” he said, and he turned to walk up the path towards the university.
Simon looked down at the card, laughed, and then started to look back at Harrigan. However, he stopped and pulled the card back out. “Reverend Canon Christopher Moon,” Simon spoke. “Father Christopher Moon?” Canon Moon? he thought. Cannon Moon? He laughed again, much louder this time, and placed the card in his pocket. Still laughing, he returned his gaze to Harrigan, who appeared to be winding down. Simon knew that soon, perhaps even later that day, he was going to have move in closer, actually talk to the would-be assassin. Before he did that, however, he wanted to be sure to have his story straight, and he started plotting out the course of a fictitious life in his mind. Simon had “acted” before, but this was potentially the most important acting job of them all, and he didn’t want to blow possibly his only chance in the spotlight.
"We need to spruce up the place a little," Mr. Percy T. "Pete" Griffith said as he looked at some cracks in the plaster. "Yes, I need to do some patch work and then get a little paint. Might make this old house that much more pleasant."
"Don't know, Pete," Ackland, a bricklayer and all-around handyman said, "I think the place looks pretty keen myself, 'specially with times bein' what they are." Ackland stubbed out his hand-rolled cigarette into the full yellow ashtray. Mrs. Griffith placed more strips of bacon, fatty and dripping with liquefied lard, onto a cracked blue and white plate.
"Mister Griffith," she said, "is justly proud of what he has accomplished. Why, not even four years ago, when no one had any money to their name, he still managed to add the canning room out back and two more bedrooms upstairs." Mr. Griffith shrugged. Simon, who was watching and listening, grabbed two slices of bacon and placed them between two buttered biscuit halves.
"Need replacing soon, too," he said as he shook his head. "I don't trust work done with scrap materials."
"Still looks pretty good to me, Mr. Griffith," Cecil the ballplayer said just before shoveling in a mouthful of grits. Simon laughed quietly despite his generally fretful mood. Harrigan doesn't usually get out until 8AM, he thought. I've got at least forty minutes to go.
"Listen, Pete," Ackland said as Mrs. Griffith disappeared into the kitchen, "and I only tell you this 'cause you're my friend. You are an old, fusspot. Hell, you've got the most well kempt house in the whole damned neighborhood!" Griffith shook his head and vehemently tapped his left pointer finger on the table. Simon finished the last of his biscuit, wiped his hands, and then pushed back from the table.
"Depression or no depression," Griffith said in a tone of voice just below a yell, "a man's got to have standards, and this place isn't living up to mine. I tell you...say, Dr. Litchfield?" Simon, who had stood up and put on his hat, nodded at Griffith. "You going by Cool Blend Tobacco today?"
"The one just down from Philby's?" Simon asked.
"That's the one," Griffith said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some change. "Pick me up a bag of Mail Pouch, will you." He handed the coins to Simon. "I appreciate it!"
"I may not be back until tonight," Simon said, but Griffith just waved him off.
"Got enough to last me 'til then," he said. Simon smiled and then headed for the door. If I'm back, he thought. With any luck, I'll resolve this thing now and get out of here. The morning was cold and clear, and Simon braced himself for his dealings with a murderer who, in this world, had never actually committed a crime.
Simon, from his usual vantage point in the trees, watched as the crowd (this time in Rock Creek Park) began to thin. Simon waited until almost everyone had left, many throwing coins into Harrigan's hat as they walked away. Harrigan bowed and praised God and did virtually everything but dance as the crowd dispersed. Finally, he removed the coins from his hat and placed them in his pocket. It was then that Simon stepped out. Approaching Harrigan as the pastor was putting on his jacket, Simon tapped him on his shoulder.
"Brother Harrigan," Simon spoke, affecting a bit of a Southern accent. "I've heard some people speak of you around town, and I was hopin' to hear one of your blessed sermons. I see, however, that I am too late." Harrigan, his green-brown eyes twinkling with delight, turned round to look at Simon. The strands of the pastor's comb-over flapped gaily in the light breeze.
"It's never too late for a solemn shepherd to speak with a lamb of Gohd." He reached out his hand, and Simon shook it as if he was shaking the hand of a hero.
"Christopher Chapman," Simon said reverently. "It is a genuine pleasure to meet you, sir."
"Mr. Chapman," Harrigan spoke. "And just what is it being said 'bout me? Good I hope." The pastor smiled widely, revealing teeth that were in remarkably good shape.
"They say," Simon said, "that you speak the truth, and that you aren't afraid to confront the devil in all his guises. Is this true?" Harrigan placed his right hand over his heart.
"Is true, is true," he spoke humbly. "I have seen the devil lately come to Washington, and I'm not 'fraid to call Mr. Roo-z-velt by his name. Yea, I call him ou-ute, I call him ou-ute." Simon nodded with the enthusiasm of a sycophant.
"A-men, brother," Litchfield said quietly. Harrigan nodded and then put on his shabby brown hat.
"Walk with me, brother Chapman," Harrigan said as he began walking up one of the park's paths. "It's been a bit 'larming last day or so. Some of the local constables have begun 'costing me, sayin' I don't have proper permits. As if the Almighty and his many vessels 'quire permission. Ain't that a sign if ever there was of the cr'uption that damn Yankee dragged into the capt'al."
"It is amazin'," Simon spoke. "Pastor, where are you from? Why haven't I heard of you before? Someone as powerful as yourself should be heard in a proper place of worship." Harrigan nodded in appreciation.
"I'm from Coun'y of Suffolk, City of Suffolk in Gohd's own country, the Com'wealth of Virginia," Harrigan said proudly. He doffed his hat to a young woman as she passed by, and Simon followed suit. "I'm pleased to call the Church of Greater Salvation and Sp'rit my home."
"How big is your congregation, if I may ask?"
Harrigan made a large circle with his arms. "Why Brother Chapman," he boomed, "whole world's my congregation!" He laughed heartily. "Yeah, everyone's a member of my church. All are brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins. All are intimate relations to me, sp'rit warrias, shoulders on the common wheel!" Quick puffs of steam jetted out with each of Harrigan's words. "Men and women; Christian and heathen; white, yellow, redman, darkie. All of us fightin' together!"
"Loved your sermon, sir," a man said as he passed by, and Harrigan doffed his hat again. Then, the pastor cleared his throat.
"'course," he said, "my 'mediate relations number twenty-two men, women, and children. All good Christian souls, everyone a' them. Praise Jesus, with his blessin' we will be a-growin' over the next year, partic'uly when more are guided by the Hand of Gohd to the Knowledge, Knowledge foretold in the Book, ya understand, of Satan's reign in the White How-oos."
"Praise Jesus," Simon spoke fervently. This isn't working, he thought. It's like having 'forty-two' without knowing the right question. "Hand of God," he spoke. "What a powerful phrase, Pastor Harrigan. You think people are often guided by the Hand of God?"
"Most certainly, can I get an a-men," Harrigan spoke.
"A-men," Simon replied.
"Hands of Gohd are evr'where," Harrigan continued, "if you are willin' to look closely enough. They lurk in the shadows, they spring from the rivers, they dance in the clouds." He looked over at Simon. "Why, sometimes, they're even people. People, bringin' messages from the Almighty, givin' directions as to His will." Simon saw his chance.
"Have you seen any Hands of God, lately, Pastor Harrigan?" he asked. Harrigan laughed bitterly.
"I have, Brother Chapman. Praise Jesus, I have!" Harrigan stopped near a bench and sat down. "Fo'give me. I'm often a bit winded after I'm done bloviatin' as the dear departed President Hardin' woulda said." Simon reached into his pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief. He handed it to Harrigan, who looked up appreciatively as he mopped fresh sweat from his forehead. "I appreciate it."
"No problem," Simon spoke as he waved off Harrigan's attempts to return it.
Yeah," Harrigan continued while clutching the handkerchief in his fist, "I've seen one of His hands of late. Told me sp'icifally what Gohd's will was, moved me with the sp'rit towards the action I knew," Harrigan pointed to his heart, "I knew I was divinely ordered to carry ou-ute" Harrigan smiled. "You know, Brother Chapman, sometimes the Hand of Gohd gives us orders we do not want to obey, we do not agree with. But, we carry through, we carry through because ou-urs is not to question His will. His will. Can I get an a-men, brother?"
Simon nodded. "Amen, Pastor Harrigan."
Harrigan grew quiet, and a smile spread over his face as his eye compressed to slits. "But this one, brother, this one I whole-heart'ly agreed with. Body and soul. You understan', my friend?" Simon nodded.
"I believe I do, sir," Simon muttered, and inside he was beginning to feel that he understood all too well. "So," Simon continued, "you carried through with your order from the hand?" Harrigan's expression fell quickly, and he shook his head.
"No," Harrigan said as he stood up and started walking again along the path. "You see, Brother Chapman, the Hand of Gohd projects His will, but the Devil, now, the Devil sends ou-ute hands of his own. Ohhh, that Devil is a wily one! And this time, he thwarted me. Thwarted Gohd!" Harrigan smiled and waved his right hand in the air. "But his time shall come. We have the Word, the Book, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, all proph'cying Satan's downfall. The Devil has only so many hands, and they shall be slapped down by and by."
"By and by, sir," Simon added. "By and by!" Harrigan pointed a finger at Simon and nodded vigorously.
"You know, brother," Harrigan said, "you've asked a great many questions abo-ute the Hand of Gohd. It's a pity we didn't meet six years ago. Under the insp'ration of the Almighty, I produced a little book of my own, devotin' one whole chapta to the Hand. Alas, it sold por'ly, and the few copies I had left perished when the Nansemond flooded the church two summers back. But, Brother Chapman, I believe you can help me. I'm searchin' now fo' a place to talk, a proper gatherin' point where I may address the masses. When that day comes, may I call upon you, as a witness, to testify abo-ute the Hands?"
Simon choked back the urge to laugh. "Certainly, pastor," Simon said disingenuously. "When that day comes, I shall be there. Put out the word, and I shall attend!"
"Bless you, brother," Harrigan said. "If you'll excuse me, I need to find another pasture where some of Gohd's lambs may be grazin'. Goodbye, brother, and a-men!" Harrigan walked more quickly along the path, the fat beneath his chin now wobbling left and right. Simon stopped and scratched his cheek.
I don't know, he thought, he could be. He could be. Seems a bit... Simon shook his head and drove out the thought that tried to impose itself. Where can I find a copy of that book? No remainder stores? Don't know how many self-respecting Christian stores would have carried it. Simon started walking, intending to find a pay phone. I suppose there's just a chance he thought as he tried to remember the last time he'd been to the Library of Congress.
Simon stood, looking at the area surrounding the main desk of the Library of Congress. It had been a long time since he had come here--will come here, actually, he thought. At first, things had seemed relatively normal, until, that is, he instinctively began looking for the computers. What amazed him was how few times he had thus suffered from culture shock, future shock, really, he thought, but a severe case of it had overwhelmed him from several minutes. Finally, he was able to recover and made his way to the card catalogs.
He had looked for nearly an hour, never actually expecting to find what he had indeed found. It was a card for The True and Gospel Understanding of the Word of God by Pastor Al Harrigan. Dumbfounded but delighted, he had made his way to the desk, filled out the required paperwork, and requested the book. Several times, the librarian had insisted there was little chance the book would actually be there, but Simon kept requesting it until she relented.
Now, waiting, he looked for nearest empty reading room.
"Mr. Litchfield," an older woman with graying hair tied up in a bun said as she approached the desk. "It is a truism in my field that there are only two unpredictable things in this world--the day the Grim Reaper will come for you, and the capriciousness of a bored cataloguer." She handed the book--cheaply bound in even cheaper binding--to Litchfield, who nodded sympathetically.
"I'm sure," he said, "and I can imagine the grief this must cause to diligent and overworked staff such as yourself." The woman nodded, and her glasses chain clinked.
"I can assure that you are the first--and if I have anything to do with it, last--individual to check out this book. This...tome...does the institution no credit." Simon took the book, tipped his hat, and headed for the nearest available reading room. Once inside, he removed his hat and began flipping through it.
No expense was spared, he thought. They cut every one they could find. The pages were uneven, the type face varied every few pages, and the text was riddled with typos, misspellings, odd turns of phrase. There seemed to be no logical order to the material either, with chapters on salvation followed by discussions on how to prepare foods in a biblically sound manner. The strangest chapter of all was the promised discussion on "The Hands of God."
The Hands of God are everywhere, the book said, the hands of God are everyone. They drop upon us from the trees. They find us in our homes, eating supper or sleeping in our beds. They reach out, grasp us, circle us, enrobe us in their divine fingers.
"Is he talking about God or a stalker?" Simon spoke quietly. The rest of the chapter was just as disorganized and just as disquieting as the beginning. Simon closed the book and cradled his chin on his hands. The book was proving to be of little help. It wasn't that he'd expected to find a chapter entitled "Death to Roo-z-velt: Here's How I Plan to Kill the President," but he had thought he'd find something to indicate how Harrigan could possibly affect the future in a significant enough way to trigger the changes Eckert's machine had been finding.
Simon sat back and rubbed his eyes. So, what's left, he thought. What's left that I can try? What angle's left to examine? He grabbed the book, stood up, and returned it to the desk. Then, he headed out into the morning. He needed to go buy a packet of Mail Pouch for Mr. Griffith. Then, he needed to go check his stack of old papers. There was an address Simon needed to find.
Litchfield stepped out of the cab on Kettlewell Road, paid and tipped the driver, and then stepped on the curb and looked around the area. According to everything he could find, this was the site of Vice-President Garner's accident, the place where according to Simon's knowledge of history Garner had been assassinated by Harrigan.
The area was a small, bleak island of fields and factories nestled in an otherwise fairly populated area. On the left side of the street for the span of two city blocks were fields of brown grass and dirt and gravel parking areas spotted with snow. On the right side were a branch railroad line and sidings serving two different factories. Both factories were red brick structures surrounded by water and chemical tanks as well as small outbuildings, stacks of crates, and other signs of industry. Neither had windows. The closest factory hummed with the sound of machinery. Wind blew steadily and occasionally gusted fast enough to cause Simon to steady himself.
It just doesn't seem right, Simon thought as he studied the lay of the land. Something like an assassination deserves a suitably momentous setting. The occasional car or truck drove by on the cracked asphalt, and he could see a couple of hobos in the distance gathered around a fire-filled trashcan. Otherwise, whoever was around was inside the factories. Simon walked over to the road and crouched down, scanning the surface and the street.
He was traveling from the north, Simon thought. Harrigan placed something on the road, probably no more than a minute before the car's arrival. Along the gutters were small pieces of pulverized glass. Plausible anyway, he thought. This could have been dropped by anybody, though. He stood up and looked back towards the first factory. An area along the side of it appeared to be in shadow, so Simon headed for it, crossing over both sets of railroad tracks. His eyes watered in the cold breeze, and he stopped to wipe the streams of tears away with the sleeve of his coat.
As he stepped onto the graveled area near the wall, the noise of the factory increased substantially, and the air was filled with vibrations and rattling sounds. Three crates were stacked, providing cover while still offering just enough view of the road. Simon stepped out, rubbing the back of his neck. The setting was perfect, perfect enough to have worked once. So, he wondered as looked on the ground for a board or stick, why didn't it work this time? What changed? Something that looked like a broken broom handle lay on the grass next to the gravel strip, and Simon walked over and picked it up. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the small time piece he'd acquired and checked the time. 4:17PM.
"All right," he said, "I'm Pastor Al Harrigan. I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore. And the Hand of God has told me this is the right thing to do!" Simon looked towards the other side of the factory and noticed there was both vehicular access and places where a car could have been parked. Okay, put my gun by the crates, he thought, run to the car and grab a couple of bottles from my trunk. Simon mimed lifting bottles from a hypothetical car, and then he ran towards the road, slowing to negotiate the rails, ballast, and railroad ties. He then bounded towards the curb and out into the road. He stood on the left side, smashed a pretend bottle on the road and scattered the glass with his feet and then repeated the process on the right side. 4:18, close to 4:19, Simon contemplated, and he headed back to the crates as fast as he could. The adrenaline's really pumping. I'm hyped up, maybe more than I've ever been. There's a devil a-coming, and I've been chosen by God to smite him down.
He nearly tripped when his feet hit the gravel, but he managed to stumble forward and regained his balance just in time to throw his back against the wall. His chest heaved as freezing air coursed in and out of his lungs. He picked up the broom handle, his left hand on the "barrel," his right on the "trigger." I see him, I see him! FDR's turned onto the street! I could've been thwarted if any other traffic came through, but I haven't been. It's providence, divine providence! In his mind, he could see the car, see it as it swerved to avoid the glass only to find more, heard the tires burst. Or maybe they just deflated. Same difference. Okay...okay.. The factory's sounds were so loud along the wall that Simon found it difficult to think. Okay...they've stopped. One chance, Al. One chance. Three...two... ONE! Like a man possessed, or at least enthralled by the "spirit," Simon sprinted out with his "gun," saw the driver wondering what he was going to do, saw the occupant of the backseat writhing with either back pain or a pain in his chest caused by smashing into the front seats.
Simon was near the tracks, the factory sounds diminishing, but as he started to level the gun and cross the rails, some sound, some sense of danger caused him to stop. This turned out to be a fortunate decision, for at that moment a camelback switching engine and ten freight cars chugged by. Simon was separated from the train by the outer rail of the siding and the ballast. He was just able to catch the name on the side of the camelback's tender--Union & Indianapolis.
Okay, he thought, I'm pumped up and now scared to death. Simon's heart pounded, and he could feel himself breaking out into a cold sweat. Three cars, two cars, one car, caboose...NOW! Simon was just getting ready to charge again when he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the nearest factory was emptying. Workers were walking across the tracks, heading for the cars in the parking lot. Two cabs pulled up and immediately filled with people.
Simon stood up and dropped the broom handle. That's it, he thought. He crossed the tracks and then sat down on the grass. He caused Garner's car to crash, but the local freight caught him before he could close in for the kill. Down the tracks, the camelback blew its steam whistle as it approached a crossing. By the time the train had cleared, those people had gone off shift and were heading home. Too many witnesses. Harrigan would have run back to his car and headed to wherever he was staying. Maybe I'd have the guts to try again, Simon thought as he waved at a confused looking worker. I'm thinking no, at least not for awhile.
At least he knew now why Harrigan's attempt had failed. What he didn't know was why the train that didn't stop him in the original time line had thwarted the pastor this time.
As Simon sat and thought, he became aware of someone walking towards him. The man appeared to be one of the hobos he'd seen earlier.
“I seen ya’ with yer walkin’ stick,” the hobo spoke, his S’s hissing through missing front teeth. “The fella the other day,” the hobo stopped to laugh. “The fella the other day, he ain’t used no walkin’ stick. No sir, not at all.” Simon looked over the man. The hobo couldn’t have been cast any better. In addition to his missing teeth, the man had several days worth of salt and pepper whiskers on his wrinkled face. His eyes, what could be seen of them anyway, were brown, and one eye seemed to be in a perpetual squint. He wore a worn brown coat with matching shirt and shoes, also equally worn. On his head was a black Stetson.
“The other fellow,” Simon spoke as he stood up. “Yes, I’d be most interested to hear what you had to say on the subject of the other fellow, Mr…”
“Ain’t got no name,” he laughed, “ain’t had one before this here depression, ain’t ‘quired one since Don’t need it.” Simon nodded.
“Well, what do your friends call you?” Simon asked. Inwardly, he cringed as he waited for some comment like “ain’t got no friends.”
“Ghost Man,” he spoke, and he let out a crazed cackle. “Haunt everywhere they don’t chase me out. This here been my home for three years. I seen the other man. Talked to him, too. You wanna hear what he wanna heard?”
"Certainly, my friend the Ghost Man," Simon replied. "Why, though, do I have the feeling that you're not just being helpful out of the kindness of the your heart?" Ghost Man laughed and then momentarily doubled over in a fit of phlegmatic coughing. Simon rushed over and helped him up, and he was nearly overwhelmed by the stench of whisky, cheap cigarettes, and decay.
"Well," Ghost Man said as he finally stopped coughing, though a low wheeze permeated his every word and breath, "ain't never been fond o' soup. But that's all them damn churches and missions handin' out. As you can see, t'aint got much altern'tive."
"And," Simon continued, "you'd like me to supply you with the means to change that." Ghost Man smiled even more, revealing vestiges of gums so drained of color that they were barely pink. A patch of snow crunched beneath his feet.
"You ain't dumb!" he exclaimed. "Three bucks in this here hand, and I'll spill what's left of m'beans!"
"Do me a favor," Simon spoke as he removed his wallet and pulled out the money. "When you're telling me what I want to know, avoid repeating that particular piece of imagery." Ghost Man took the money and then rapidly stowed it somewhere within the confines of his coat. "Now, tell me about the other fellow."
"I seen this guy drive up," Ghost Man started. He sat on the ground and slowly crossed his legs. A burst of steam shot up through the smokestack of the factory. "I knew he weren't from 'round here. You see 'em all the time. They usually come to town for the soup."
"Soup?" Simon queried, instantly becoming suspicious.
"Yeah," Ghost Man continued, "I hear'd about jobs with alphabet soup. They comin' for the soup, I figures!"
"Okay," Simon spoke, "I follow now. Continue."
"I'm with a couple a pals by a fire, and then this guy, he comes over t'talk. Dumpy guy, bald, ain't wearin' no coat." Simon nodded, recognizing the description of Harrigan. "He says, uh, he says, 'I'm looking fer the Greater Gospel Tabernacle. Any of you boys know where that is?' So, I says, I says, "Uh, no, ain't never hear'd of it. And I make it my business to know where them churches are!" Ghost Man shifted his weight so that his pants were on a slightly less snowy patch of ground. "He says the dangest thing. Says, um, ah, um." Ghost Man sniffed. "Says, 'Hand-o gohad ain't with me t'day, boys. One of the devil's lately come musta fiddled with the map.'"
"So what did he do next?" Simon asked, trying to get Ghost Man passed the syntactical nightmare of Harrigan's speech.
continued. "I says,
'What devils?' And he says, 'Why one of
them same devils keeping you down, the demons dragged in by Roo-z-velt!' I says, "
Simon blinked. "How did you know that the president was in that car?"
"Hey buddy!" a man near the factory yelled as he stepped out a side door. "You got a light?" Simon looked towards the factory and shook his head.
"Oh, I know a president when I sees one," Ghost Man continued. "See, I ain't always been the fellow you see standin' here, in all me glorious wonder!" Lifting himself from the ground, he stood up straight and stared at the flagpole in front of the factory. Someone, probably an office worker, was busy lowering the forty-eight starred American flag. "I haven't, you see, always been a ghost. I used to be Harry George Bellhorn III, Lt. US Army! I saw them Rough Riders! I saw TR and knew, then, that fella was gonna be president some day!" He looked, smiling, at Simon. "Ain't it a grand gift, chum? Ain't it grand!" Ghost Man laughed and again doubled over coughing.
"Yeah," Simon spoke, quietly, a dejected tone in his voice. "Yeah, it's grand, Ghost Man."
"Hey," a second man called from the factory, "you fellas move along! We've got a job to do here!" He struck a match and lit the first man's cigarette.
Simon retrieved his wallet and took out one more dollar. "I appreciate your help," he said as he handed the bill to Ghost Man
"An' time!" Ghost Man said as he doffed his hat to Simon. "Come back an' time you wants to. Just yell out, 'Ghost Man,' and I'll be right there!" The hobo headed back towards the trash fire as Simon again sat on the ground. Somewhere in the distance, Simon would've sworn he heard the sound of a wall collapsing or a thousand glass windows smashing.
This cinches it, he thought. It's official, I'm a fool. It was all too clear now, the reality of the situation. Simon thought about the two kinds of insanity he'd witnessed in his work and travels. One category, by far the most common he'd seen in his line of work, was the 'insane genius,' someone possessing great talents and abilities but who by virtue of his or her work or simply by his or her temperament had firmly lost touch with reality. Hitler came to mind by virtue of Simon's current temporal circumstances. But there was also Dr. Geisel in Nigeria, and Dr. Federov in Russia, William Gryphius, Celinde, Baranoff, and any number of others he'd encountered. Too many of them, he thought as more faces and unpleasant memories drifted past. This brand of insanity, Simon knew, was difficult to anticipate and counter since those suffering from it were resourceful, clever, wily, and often thoroughly unpredictable.
But then there was the second category, 'simple insanity,' people crushed under the weight of their own delusions and fantasies, people with few if any skills at planning and rational thinking. Within this category, there was also a specific subset, the 'insane but lucky.'
Al Harrigan, as history was originally recorded, was the assassin of John Nance Garner. If Simon was right, the pastor had scouted out a good location for his ambush and waited until the Vice-President's car was incapacitated. Plus points for ingenuity. However, all of those points were negated by two simple facts. First, Pastor Al Harrigan had used a half-crazed hobo as an intelligence asset, listening to Ghost Man and, more damningly, acting upon Ghost Man's claims of an unprotected President of the United States passing by each day on Kettlewell Road. Second, as Simon's re-enactment had shown, Harrigan the first time had been the recipient of plain luck, luck that was apparently very easily undone by the changes taking place.
This information, combined with Harrigan's book and his words and actions had spelled things out very clearly to Simon, and what was tearing him apart more than anything else was the knowledge that, deep down, he'd always known but simply couldn't admit it to himself. Harrigan, after all, had been Simon's only solid lead, but all pretense now had to be discarded.
Pastor Al Harrigan of the Church of Greater Salvation and Spirit, Suffolk, Virginia, was, most assuredly, insane but lucky. The scales tipped in his direction once, Simon thought, but they never will again. He looked into the rapidly darkening skies. Harrigan couldn't be the source of the changes taking place. He's merely a symptom, Simon thought, and, like the survival of Garner, an unimportant symptom at that.
Simon stood up and walked up the tracks, heading in the direction the U&I train had traveled. Camelbacks, Simon thought. Damn things never made much sense to me. A car driving by beeped loudly, and someone yelled something about a train coming. Simon waved at them, being sure to lower almost all of his fingers save one before finally lowering his whole hand. Firebox in the back, driver up on top. Heck of a way to run a train.
Ballast and ice crackled as Simon walked along the ties. As day faded into night, rays of streetlights danced upon the rails, making it look as if he was walking an illuminated path. Occasionally, he paused long enough on his journey to kick a rock and listen to the noises it made as it careened along the ties and off the rails.
Simon followed the track for over a mile before a loud steam whistle echoed through the darkness. He looked up and watched as a passenger train glided by, its line crossing over the one upon which he was walking. Probably heading for U&I's station, he thought as the last coach disappeared behind a building. It was then he noticed his heart leaping with joy, and he smiled despite his mood. The next layout he built--if I ever build another one he thought as a wave of pain crashed into his mood--would have to include a steam engine or two. He looked up towards the clear evening sky.
"A moon full of stars and astral cars," he sang quietly, puffs of steam rising in the air, "and all the figures I used to see."
Simon, following the spur, crossed a quiet street, crossed onto the double tracks of the main line, and looked at his surroundings. To his left, the main line tracks quickly curved behind a line of buildings. To his right was a straighter stretch of track. In front of him was a small freight yard--six tracks; various cross-overs; an array of box, flat, and tank cars; and a wooden structure that probably served as an office for those who worked the yard. He also saw a sanding tower and water tower though there was no coaling station. Probably goes up the line to a roundhouse when the engine needs coal, he thought. In the illumination of the streetlights, he could just make out the camelback he'd seen earlier. There was a distinct lack of activity in the yard.
"Gone home for the evening," he said. Home, he thought. He stepped down off the right-of-way and started looking for a pay phone. After all, Simon had seen Mrs. Griffith turn away borders who were not at the table, "promptly," by 6PM. Once he'd eaten--and he would eat, regardless of how appetizing or unappetizing the meal appeared--he'd have to go back to his room and figure out where to start again.
As he walked, Simon spotted a Christmas wreath hung on tobacco shop's door. "Late December" he said. First Christmas decoration I've seen, he thought. It looked more and more like he'd be spending Christmas in the past, and as the thought crossed his mind he stopped, almost frozen in place. Christmas, he thought. It's hard enough without having to spend it here. If he was still in 1939 over Christmas, he'd need to find a Catholic church and be sure to light a candle for Maria. He stopped himself before he thought more, thought more about that name and all of the memories and descended into a private melancholy he was not prepared to deal with at that moment. With great deliberation, he started walking again, concentrating on the cold, on the task at hand, and on the hot meal that awaited him.
It was early, 5AM the next morning, when Simon stood by the Chesapeake & Ohio canal. However, the place was virtually nothing like the C&O he knew and loved. This C&O, thanks to years of benign neglect and flood, was a dirty, fetid, blackened mess, strewn with debris and occasional floes of ice. Still, it was a palpable connection to the present, Simon's present, and it was here that he felt most connected to himself and to his thoughts.
Simon watched his breath condense and turn to steam in the pale white glow of the streetlights. If it's not Harrigan, he thought, then who? Then what? Somewhat whimsically, considering the circumstances, the narrator's closing words of an old show ran through his head: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City." The district's population was nowhere near that big, but it might as well have been.
"Eight million choices, give or take a red herring," he said dejectedly. It was the first time since the whole rotten venture had begun that he'd felt something approaching true despair. It had been known to occur before, but almost always there was someone with him, someone who could either cheer him up or at least keep him from feeling, as he felt now, utterly alone. There was now a very real, palpable possibility that at fifty-three years old he would have to build a new life. Worse, he couldn't count on his knowledge of the future to get him through. At least one historical "fact," he thought, has already gone out the window. Who knows what else is to come?
If he lived long enough, and if the future stayed something close to "true," he might still see Stephanie again. He'd have to carefully time his arrival so that it occurred AFTER his fifty-three year old self had gone back to the past to fail. No use in creating a paradox, he thought. Things could be bad enough already. And then there was Tom, too. Simon always hoped that the psychologist would settle down with someone nice, perhaps even with Stephanie though that wasn't likely given both how much Tom already knew about her and his professional ethics. Still, Tom deserved someone special.
And what of Gillian, he thought before shaking his head. No, you're getting too maudlin! You're giving up! It's not too late. No, perhaps there was still something left to do, but he couldn't for the life of him think of what it could be.
He crouched, tossed a stone into the water, looked up at the sky just starting to shimmer with the first rays of morning light. "Sword of Damocles," he said quietly. "I just can't get away from the damn thing!" He stood up, but as he did he caught site of a young walnut tree. Something about its shape, about its place along the canal started to jog Simon's memory, so he walked to it and placed his hands on its trunk. He laughed quietly and patted its lower branches as he smiled despite his mood.
I think I remember you, he thought. Unless he was mistaken, this same tree would still be around the first time Simon saw the canal, saw the beauty of the C&O's construction and the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its nature. The same tree would last until Simon's fiftieth birthday when a severe thunderstorm uprooted it.
Even in the depths of his near despair, a mischievous thought took hold, and he considered reaching into his pocket for a small pocketknife he'd recently purchased. Wouldn't that blow her mind, he thought as he considered carving "Morna the Lovely" into the bark. The first time he'd kissed Morna Callahan, the future second Mrs. Litchfield, she'd draped herself alluringly along the contour of that tree. He tried imaging her surprise when one of them noticed a "message from the gods" tattooed into it.
"No," he said, "don't want the poor thing to come down with a disease or infestation." Despite everything that happened later between the two of them, that most electric of moments with Morna wasn't something he wanted to change. He wanted everything the same, down to the last atom, if for no other reason than that kiss had quickly led to a trip back to her apartment and then...
"Change?" Simon spoke suddenly and somewhat loudly, his voice echoing among the run-down buildings and houses of the canal district. The word had intruded back in almost under his conscious radar before popping back into full view. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the knife and extended its silver blade. He looked at the tree and down at his knife. If I carve something into that tree, he thought, no matter how carefully, it WILL change. Simon put the knife away and then scratched his chin. Something was gnawing at him, something he was beginning to feel that should have been obvious.
"Oh no," he said, a horrified expression crossing his face. It was the only logical answer. It had to be the answer, but the cold truth of it still hit him like a punch. "It's me!" he said quietly but forcefully. "Damnit, it's me!" Simon leaned up against the tree and held his hands over his face. How could I have been so naive, he thought. He stared back at the waters of the canal. "Of course something has changed in 1939," he said. "I wasn't here when 1939 rolled around before! You idiot! The answer was staring you down in the shaving mirror!"
Simon slid down to the ground and then sat as he tapped the frozen earth with his fist. Everything from the moment of his arrival in the alleyway to now was different than it had been before simply because, as Karl had eloquently pointed out, Simon didn't belong there.
Except it can't just be me, can it, he thought. He thought about the implications of various scientific and philosophical theories. I've never been a believer in the butterfly effect, so my simply showing up here can't, in and of itself, be causing all of this. Simon leaned against the tree and thought before pulling out his notebook and pencil.
"All right," he said, "I need to catalog every person I've interacted with since I arrived." Simon began sketching out the various associations--names when he knew them or simple descriptions when he didn't, characteristics he remembered about them, professions, locations. When he was finished, he flipped through the list, looking for individuals he could conceivably eliminate. Many of them were quite easy to remove--cabbies, shoeshine boys, merchants, and such. Some took more time--Mr. and Mrs. Griffith and the other inhabitants of the boarding house, for instance. However, he'd had precious little to do with most of them, and if he hadn't rented the room, someone else would have.
He went back to the list and temporarily added someone he called "Boarder X," the person Simon had theoretically condemned to the streets, but he finally decided he simply couldn't account for unknown individuals.
It took quite a bit of thinking, and the sky had brightened considerably before Simon narrowed the list down to three people--the waitress at Philby's he'd accidentally tipped $2.00, Eddie Winter, and Karl Emit.
Karl wasn't, strictly, a person, but at the same time he was an unusual persona. Still, he seemed to be more or less stuck in the train station, and he seemed to primarily affect the dead.
The waitress...the waitress, he thought. That was an enormous sum of money for this time...a full week's wages in many places. Is that going to make a difference? Did she go out and blow it on something frivolous? Did she invest it, somehow? Would that completely undo history? Somehow, it just didn't seem likely. But...
Eddie Winter. He was going to die, Simon considered. It's possible someone else could have rescued him. Still, that was a big deal. Simon remembered the likeable if pathetic figure he'd saved from the clutches of angry goons. Looking back, it bothered him that he had done something so impulsive, and having just arrived at the time was no excuse. Okay, this is sounding promising. Who is Eddie Winter, anyway? The first car of the morning drove by on a nearby street.
He pulled open the notebook and started sketching notes. One of the first things that stood out to Simon was the fact that Eddie had a pocket watch. Strange that, he thought, for a compulsive gambler. You'd think he would have pawned it very early on. The pencil scratched on the paper. Next to the note about the watch, Simon scratched a few phrases he remembered hearing Eddie say:
If Old Lady Luck is with me that day, then I can clear a big bundle.
Even on a bad week I break even. Then, you dump the fire and start again.
How was I supposed to know he'd hire a lousy cut man for his corner?
No chance all of them are gonna blow back on me this time! I can pull in a full car load and have a stake left for the week after.
You need help with anything, anything, just ask around for Eddie Winter.
Simon sat back against the tree, his eyes opening as a sense of recognition slowly wove its way through his mind. Pocket watch, dump the fire, blow back, full car load. A joyless smile crossed his face. "Pocket watch," he said as he stood up and started for the street. "Good God... Taxi!"
It was 7:10AM when Simon ran through the front door of American Gateway Station. In fact, he had bounded up the stairs so quickly that he was inside before the doorman had a chance to notice him. He made his way passed the early morning travelers; passed the porters hauling luggage around; passed the old women, wearing finery that was nearly always decades out of date, who seemed to always inhabit transportation hubs. He ran passed the empty alcove and into the men's lavatory, which was, thankfully, quite empty. Simon looked around expectantly, but nothing happened.
"Karl," Simon called out. "It's me! It's Simon! I've got to talk to you. Can you bring me over?" The door opened, and a young man walked in. He smiled politely before entering one of the stalls. Simon cursed under his breath before heading back into the waiting area.
As he passed the ticking clock in the alcove, he called out again. "Karl!" he said. "I'm just going to get louder about this until you answer...or until they toss me out on my ass. Karl!"
"There's no need to shout," Karl said from right beside Simon. Despite himself, Litchfield was quite startled.
"How long have I been yelling in the afterlife?" he finally said when he caught his breath.
"Right about the time you were leaving the restroom," Karl replied. He clasped his right wrist. "Dr. Litchfield," he said in a polite but distracted tone, "I'd love to talk with you, in great detail, about whatever it is you wish to discuss. However, things are about to become very..."
"I figured it out, Karl," Simon interrupted. "I figured out what happened!" Karl nodded, and an expression of curiosity washed over his face.
"Have you?" Karl replied. "Have you indeed?" Karl sat down on a nearby chair. "Well, sir, that's excellent news. Excellent. I guess you'll be leaving soon, then?" Simon waved his hands.
"Figuring it out," he said, taking the seat next to Karl, "and knowing what to do about it are two different things. I've got a pretty good notion about what is happening, but I'll need help putting the pieces together. Specifically, I'll need help from you." Karl looked at Simon quizzically.
"My help?" he asked, pointing at his chest. "What can I possibly do for you? I'm severely restricted in my movements, in my effect upon the world." Karl looked towards the platforms. "I have one function, and that function, I'm afraid, is confined to this station. I can't leave here." Simon shook his head.
"I don't need you to leave," he said. "All I need to know is this. How far in advance are you notified of who will be coming here? The dead, I mean." Karl blinked hard and shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably.
"Well...well...I don't actually know who is and isn't coming," he half stuttered. "I just notice them as they arrive, that's..."
"I may look old for 1939," Simon spoke, "but I'm not really, and my memory is very good." Simon pointed to his temple. "You know in advance who's coming. Case in point, that girl, Susannah. You knew exactly how she died. More importantly, you knew that her parents would be following soon after. That's very precise information, don't you think?" Karl nodded and smiled slightly.
"I, I commend you," Karl spoke. "It was very silly of me. I don't really know why I felt the need to deceive you." Karl looked around like he was expecting to see someone. "All right, Simon, I do receive a...a manifest...if you'd like. It is quite detailed though most of the time the details aren't tremendously important. For the most part, those on the list simply need a warm smile or a friendly word of encouragement."
Simon nodded. "I don't know if the details are important. All I know is that I need to see the manifest," Simon spoke matter-of-factly. "Or if I can't see it, then I need for you to speak it to me. The names..."
"You are telling a joke, right," Karl spoke as he laughed lightly and shook his head. "The situation has never come up, I'll grant you that, but I can't imagine something like showing the...the living...a copy of the manifest is allowed. I suspect there could be grave implications for me if I should do something so foolish." Simon grinned.
"And bringing me over to talk to you is allowed?"
"This is hardly equivalent, Dr. Litchfield," Karl said in his most serious voice. "Showing you that list would violate confidences I can barely even contemplate. Just why do you need to see today's manifests?" Simon pointed to a large board in the lobby, one that listed the various trains which would be coming to and leaving American Gateway Station during that day.
"Because today is December 23," Simon said plainly, "the winter solstice." Karl didn't appear to understand. "The first day of winter, Karl. The first day of winter. Before I left my time, I was told something serious was occurring in winter 1939. That means that whatever is going to happen will happen within the next eight days. Do your manifests cover eight days?"
"Whether they do or do not is a moot point," Karl said sternly, "since I'm not going to show them to you. Do you even know who you're looking for?" Karl asked.
Simon nodded. "Eddie Winter," he said. "He works for this railroad, the Union & Indianapolis. When I first arrived in 1939, I rather foolishly rescued him from a couple of thugs. By all rights, Karl, that man should be dead. Don't you get it?" Simon laughed bitterly. "I've unleashed an ordinary man upon the world, but he's going to cause something extraordinary, or at least I'm just about certain he will."
"How do you know he works for this railroad?" Karl asked, a childlike tone creeping into his voice.
"Look, I don't think I have time to explain it all," Simon spoke impatiently. "I just have these ... A friend of mine calls them intuitive leaps. Pieces of information snapping together to make a coherent picture. Eddie made several railroading references--blow back, car load, dump the fire. The kicker, though, was his pocket watch. A simple pocket watch, the very heart of railroading. He's an engineer or a brakeman or a fireman! I just didn't know what I was looking for at first. Later, I found out that someone didn't die because his would-be assassin was stopped by a Union & Indianapolis local." Karl scratched above his lips and then started scratching his chin. "Eddie was driving that train. He had to have been."
Karl looked like a confused child. "I just can't show you..."
"It's me," Simon spoke passionately, notes of pleading popping into his voice. "I was sent to find out what was changing the past. I'm what's changed the past!" Karl still looked uncomprehending. "If I'd let Eddie die, someone else would have been running that route, someone who would have been ahead of or behind schedule due to lack of experience. I saved Eddie! Now, Eddie's doing things to change time, and he's not even aware of them."
"You think that viewing the manifest will make that great of a difference?" Karl asked skeptically.
"I do," Simon said. "Something's going to happen over the next few days, something truly catastrophic for what I know of as the present. And I'm nearly positive it will show up on your lists." Karl looked towards the ceiling.
"No," he said firmly. "No, I can't do it. I have a duty." Simon looked about ready to explode with rage, but he quickly calmed himself, closed his eyes, and sighed.
"Look," he said quietly. "There's no way for me to understand who you are and what you have gone through. Your experiences, your points of reference..." Simon rubbed his eyes with his fingers. "There are things afoot that I scarcely can comprehend, you among them. But, I do know this." He looked over at Karl and stared at him intently. "What you do is important. There are lives, torn and broken lives, who cross through here every day, and you help them to understand. You comfort them, you make them feel that, whatever is coming, it is going to be all right." Karl nodded.
"In the conversations I overhear," Karl said, "there's usually a 'but' at this point." Simon grinned.
"Whatever you do," Simon continued, "whatever effect you have upon these people, they are already dead. Nothing can be done to change that. You said yourself that you know them because they are like fires extinguished." Simon sat up and pointed at his chest. "My business, Karl, my business is life. Whatever I do or do not do over the next few days, over perhaps the next few hours, will affect billions. That's my purpose, that's my role!"
Karl looked at the floor, studying the outline of his black, well-polished shoes.
Simon continued. "You're going to do whatever you are going to do, and the thing that frustrates me is there is nothing, nothing, I can do about that. I can't very well threaten you. I can't resort to all the ugly, despicable things the desperate are capable of, and this is emphatically a situation where I would be forced to those measures." Simon sat back and looked totally, utterly vulnerable. "I'm entirely at your mercy." Simon again stared intently at Karl. "Please, Karl. I'm asking you for your help. I'm begging you for your help."
Standing up, Karl walked towards the windows to look out upon the platforms. Simon jumped up to follow. While he wasn't positive, Simon thought he might have gotten to this man, if Karl could truly be called anything so mundane as a man.
"Great Expectations," Karl finally said, and it was Simon's turn to look confused.
"What?" he asked. "You talking Charles Dickens?" Karl nodded.
"Yes," he replied. "Charles Dickens. Great Expectations." Karl sighed. "A few years ago, there were many passengers stranded here during a severe snowstorm. No train came or went for three days. No one could leave the station because it was simply too dangerous." The clock above the ticket counter ticked to 7:20AM. "One of the passengers passed the time by reading a volume of Great Expectations. Unfortunately, he was a very slow reader. We were halfway through the book when the tracks were cleared and he left."
"What does this have to do with my seeing the manifest?" Simon inquired impatiently.
"I was enthralled by that book," Karl replied, "absolutely drawn in by Mr. Dickens' language." He looked directly into Simon's eyes. "I want to know how it ends. I've had a strong suspicion for years now that Mrs. Havisham was not Pip's benefactor." Karl breathed deeply. "I'm going to break everything I know to be the rules, Dr. Litchfield, and that is my price. Will you pay the debt?" Simon blinked.
"Once this is over," he said, "I will buy you the finest copy of Great Expectations I can get my hands on."
"Leave it downstairs," Karl said with something akin to delight. "Leave it in the steam tunnels. Hopefully, no one will disturb it until I've had a chance to finish it. Then, at last, I can know." Simon held out his hand. Karl took a deep breath and held his palm flat. Simon watched as something resembling a parchment scroll appeared in Karl's hand. "The manifest covers three days in advance. I doubt, though, there is much beyond the basic names you'll be able to understand." Simon reached for it, but it was several seconds before Karl finally let go.
"Thank you," Simon spoke sincerely.
"What's done is done," Karl replied, shaking his head. Simon started looking over the list. The names were written plainly enough, but there was other writing as well, nearly all of it incomprehensible. It appeared to be a hodgepodge of languages, signs, and symbols. Some of it appeared Greek, and for a moment Simon wondered what an expert on ancient languages would do with a document like this. Quickly, though, he cleared his head and started reading the names.
"There are a lot of names for today," Simon said, looking over the list for the 23rd. "Is it normally this busy?"
"No," Karl said, "it's what I was trying to tell you when you came in. Things are about to get very busy here. There's going to be a dreadful accident in just a few minutes." Simon scanned the list and quickly found an entry for Winter, Edward. He was just about to yell eureka when two other names on the list for the 23rd nearly jumped off the page at him. McNamera, Robert was one. LeMay, Curtis was the other.
"Oh, damn," Simon said quietly. "That would do it. That would do it indeed." He looked up at Karl. "This accident, it's going to be caused by a derailment, isn't it."
"Oh yes," Karl said, a tinge of sadness in his voice. "Owing to my circumstances, it always pains me when the rails are responsible for deaths. The Union Comet is going to meet a tragic fate this morning, I'm afraid." Simon handed the manifest to Karl and pointed out Eddie's name. Karl looked somewhat shocked. "Exactly who you said you'd find," Karl spoke with some degree of amazement.
"He's going to cause the accident," Simon said. "You have no idea the ramifications of this, do you?" Karl shook his head and Simon rolled his eyes. "Of course you wouldn't! That's so stupid of me to say that."
"Please," Karl said, "be brief."
Simon looked around, trying to find the words to make Karl understand. "All right, there's a name here, Robert McNamera. Right now, he's, well, I have no idea what he is now. In a few years, however, he will help plan the firebombing of a foreign capital. Later, in the 1960s, he will help orchestrate an entire war." Karl looked puzzled.
"And this is someone you want to save?" Simon laughed and shrugged his shoulders as if to say well, it's just one of those crazy things, you know.
"I don't want to," Simon continued. "I have to. The same goes for General LeMay. With McNamera, he'll help implement the plans for the firebombing, and then he'll become one of the architects of something called the Cold War." Karl stared at Simon as if he was insane.
"Dr. Litchfield," he said, "you keep saying that a change will be produced in the future if these men die. If such a change were produced, it sounds like it would be for the better, don't you think?" Simon shook his head.
understand," Simon spoke.
"Causality, Karl, causality!
The people who take their places could be worse. If not
Karl nodded and then looked up at the clock. "Simon," he spoke quietly as he suddenly realized the implication of what he saw, "I don't know how to tell you this, but I fear it is too late to stop what is happening. The accident occurs in a little over thirteen minutes." Simon spun around to look at the clock's hands, the color draining from his face.
"Thirteen minutes!" he yelled. "Where does it happen?" Karl looked down at the floor.
"At a freight yard just up the line," Karl said. "There's a," he closed his eyes and concentrated, "a collision." Simon's eyes darted around as if he was trying to spot something buzzing about in the air.
"All right," he said quickly, "I know where it is. I'll just...I'll..." He closed his eyes and threw his hat to the ground. "I'll never get there in time." Karl looked at Simon sympathetically. "This isn't fair, you know. To figure out a puzzle just in time to have the final piece destroyed." Simon put his head in his hands and tried to hold on to his composure. The clock in the alcove chimed the half-hour. Clock, Simon thought. Now, where was it when I first came in? Simon raised his head and looked in the direction of the alcove. It wasn't there, was it. But, now that I'm with Karl...
Simon looked at Karl, and something about the man's name began rolling across his mind. Emmit, he thought. He says his name is Karl Emmit. Simon's breath caught as another possibility emerged. I wonder...if I've been misunderstanding the spelling...
"You have my deepest sympathies, Dr. Litchfield," Karl said. "Give me a little while. Once the hubbub dies down a bit..."
"Where did you get your name?" Simon asked with renewed vigor. "You said you just appeared one day, staring at woman, hearing what she thought." Karl cocked his head to one side. "Did your name come to you right then in a flash?"
Karl looked away from Simon. "My name was something I chose for myself. It was simply a pleasing combination of names I'd overheard in conversation. That's all." Simon grinned and shook his head.
"No," Simon spoke, "there was something you said when I was here before, something odd, but once again I was too caught up in other things to realize."
"I recall nothing unusual," Karl said uncomfortably. He nervously tugged at his cufflinks.
"You said," Simon continued, "I'm paraphrasing, of course, that trying to change time was the most difficult job in the world. Remember? It was shortly after I met you."
"Well, it is a difficult job," Karl said quietly. "You've proven that yourself. It doesn't take much knowledge of a situation to understand that."
"Knowledge," Simon said as he pointed at Karl and smiled. "Interesting choice of words, there. I said nothing about knowledge, but you made an assumption that I had." Simon skipped a beat. "Why'd you choose that name?"
"Because I liked the sound of it," Karl said somewhat impatiently, and he started to walk away. Simon jumped up and followed. Finally, he stepped in front of Emit and physically stopped him.
"Care to guess what word is produced when you spell your name backwards?" Simon smiled widely. "Particularly if it is E-m-i-t, as I suspect it is. It's interesting, also, that a person who commented upon the difficultly of changing time also happens to conjure up a grandfather clock whenever he's around. At least, I think it is. Don't you, Mr. Emit?" Karl again looked away. "You can help me, can't you? But you're afraid of something. What's so frightening that you're prepared to lie to keep me from knowing about it?" He moved closed to Karl. "What's so frightening that you're prepared to let one future die in order to not confront it?" Karl looked back at Simon, his face carrying a conflicted look.
"I've already killed one man," Karl spoke quietly, and he walked back towards the waiting area. "One was enough, sir. I'm not taking that chance again!" Simon grabbed Karl by the shoulders and spun him around.
"How could you kill a man?" he asked. "You said you have precious little effect upon the real world. How do you explain that contradiction?"
"Because I intervened in someone else's affair!" Karl snapped. "I mean that quite literally, and now I wish to say no more."
Simon shook his head. "Oh no, no, no," he said, the grin still on his face, "I don't have the luxury of letting you off the hook. I've got no choice but to pry because everything is depending on me. That's a hell of a responsibility."
"You're playing God!" Karl snarled. "Worse, you're asking me to play God. I'm not doing that again." Simon glanced at the clock on the arrivals/departures board. Ten minutes, he thought. Come on, Simon, break him down. Break through!
"Or maybe I'm just playing my part in His will," Simon responded, and Karl stopped in his tracks. "You don't know what you are, but you've certainly guessed well." Simon pointed at himself. "I don't know what I am in the grand scheme of things, but I can guess too. And who's to say I'm not guessing correctly?" Karl nodded, his mouth hanging open.
"That isn't fair," Karl said quietly. "Who knows if any of us are part of His will? I don't know who I am working for." Simon reached out and touched Karl's shoulder.
"What happened?" Simon asked. "Why don't you want to admit what you can do?"
"He was a young man," Karl spoke, and he started back again towards the alcove. Simon followed as quickly as he could. "I could tell there was someone he was trying to catch, someone who'd boarded a train. He was up the street, but I could hear what he was thinking. 'I've got to catch her,' he thought. 'I've got to tell her how I feel. She must know before I lose her forever.'"
"Go on," Simon said, though inside he was desperately wanting to skip the story.
"I thought," Karl continued, "that perhaps I could intervene on his behalf." He reached towards the clock with his left hand but seemed to resist reaching too far. "Some time after I took solid form," he lowered all but his pointer and index finger, "that clock appeared in the alcove, and I realized that we were bound together somehow. I'd noticed, in conjunction with the clock, that I could affect time for specific individuals, and I did so whenever I deemed it necessary." Karl stopped in front of the clock and stared at its dark brown body, at its shining brass fixtures, at the black hands that made their way over the ivory-colored clock face. "I slowed time for everyone but him, or at least it would have appeared that way to him, gave him the chance to catch the train before it left." Karl sighed. "So he made it in, found her, spoke to her, and was thoroughly rebuked for his attempts." Karl looked at Simon. "She rejected him, Simon, outright, without any hope for a change of heart. Her train left, and he stayed behind."
"You said you'd killed a man," Simon said. "What did you mean by that?"
"A few hours later," Karl whispered as he pulled his hand back from the clock almost as if it had been burned, "he arrived again at the station. He was, Simon, a late addition to that day's manifest. He was a suicide, a man who threw himself in front of an oncoming train." Karl looked down and brought a fist to his forehead. "I had to take him to a Twilight Special. I, who had played God. It was the last time I intervened in the affairs of the living. I'd very much like it to stay that way."
Simon once again stood in front of Karl Emit and smiled. "Then this, my friend," he spoke kindly, "is your chance at redemption. This accident isn't supposed to happen, and with your help, we can make sure that it doesn't." Karl never looked up, only pointed with his finger towards the door.
"I can promise nothing," he said quietly. "I don't know how far my influence in this case extends, but I will try and slow things down for as long as I can. And God help us both if you're wrong about all of this." Simon smiled and shook Karl's hand.
"I've got to go," Simon said, "but when this is all over, I will return with the best copy of Great Expectations that I can find in the district." Karl nodded, and a hint of smile crossed his face as he reached for the clock.
"Go," Karl said softly, "go now." Simon nodded, picked up his hat, and headed for the nearest exit.
Simon ran along the railroad tracks, the world appearing surreal and strange around him. Birds were stopped in mid flight, smoke was arrested in mid-curl as it tried to rise from smoke stacks, and people and vehicles stood still where they were. And while the air was cold and Simon's breath easily turned into steam, he felt no wind and no movement of air rushing by him.
He followed as the track curved and then went over a crossing. Loose ballast slipped beneath him, and several times he fell but recovered quickly. Simon didn't know how long Karl's "spell" would last, and nothing, not even a nasty gash he opened on his leg during one fall, was going to stop him.
After nearly twenty minutes of running, or at least brisk walking, he finally saw the freight yard. He stopped to catch his breath and to quickly survey the scene. The camelback engine, coupled with its tender and several freight cars, appeared to be sitting still, but as Simon looked over the locomotive, he noticed that a puff of smoke was just starting to emerge from the chimney. The track the engine was on snaked over several junctions, and if all of them were lined up correctly, they would send the moving train over the main line and down the Kettlewell Road branch.
He looked again at the locomotive. He was about to check for signs of disturbance when the puff of steam suddenly made its way out of the camelback's chimney. The smoke froze just afterwards, but Simon knew the charm was wearing down, that Karl was either out of energy or out of time himself. The engine was definitely in motion.
The puff, however, hadn't burst into the air as if the train was moving quickly. The smoke and steam only come out when the cylinders move a full cycle, he thought. If it's coming out that slowly, the throttle must just barely be engaged. When time started moving again, Simon would at least have the luxury of a little extra time to deal with whatever the situation in the freight yard actually was.
The switches, Simon thought, and he decided for the moment to ignore the locomotive and whatever might be occurring with it. Moving quickly, he arrived at the closest switch. Unfortunately, it was padlocked, and Simon had nothing with him that could change that. The next switch was in the same condition. Whatever's happening, he thought as he ran towards the engine, it started before they had a chance to get to work out here. The chimney expelled another burst of smoke and steam, and as it did the air began blowing steadily across the open yard. Oh well, Simon thought as he broke into a jog towards the camelback, it was fun while it lasted.
As Simon neared the engine, he suddenly understood exactly what was going on. Four men were arrayed around a figure lying on a stretch of asphalt near a storage shed. A man, dressed in typical railroader's gear, appeared to have been worked over and knocked unconscious, probably with the stoker's shovel that lay bloody and abused next to him. Probably the fireman, Simon contemplated. Stuck all alone at the back of the engine. They always were sitting ducks on the camelback. Buddy and Mitch, the friends that he'd encountered when he rescued Eddie, were not there, but the men who were close enough in appearance that there was no doubt who sent them. The engine again let out a puff of steam as the cylinder slowly pushed the rods and wheels along.
"You!" one of the goons yelled, pointing his finger at Simon. Someone up in the engineer's cab let out a scream. Simon stared at the thug, at the man wearing a worn leather jacket and dusty blue jeans. Suddenly, he realized that he'd seen the man before.
"You're Whitey Reuger?" Simon spoke with surprise. "When I saw you at that site in Georgetown, I never made the connection when Jeffries said you're name was Whitey." Whitey mimed Simon's expression.
"Well ain't that just fuckin' hilarious," Whitey spoke in a whiny voice. "When I saw ya in Georgetown, I didn't put two and two together in your fuckin' chest! If I'd of known then..." Whitey laughed. "You shoulda gone home and massaged your gums when I told you to, asshole!" He pointed at the trio of goons surrounding him. "Y'know, you got us all canned, and ain't none of us happy with that! Not to mention Mitch and Buddy ain't feeling too well these days."
"Listen," Simon spoke with as much apathy as he could muster, all the while wishing he could just get on with it. Somehow, however, he thought that Reuger and his men would neither appreciate nor understand the need for urgency in the matter. "I'd love to chat with you, catch up on old times and all that, but I really need to get on with saving the world, so if you don't mind, I'll just pop up into the cab and have it out with whoever's up there with Eddie."
"Hey!" Whitey yelled as he and his henchmen moved in closer. "Eddie's just gettin' what he deserved. It ain't nice to fuck with your bookie. I got a business to run. Anyway," he nodded to one of his friends, a tall skinny man in worn tweed, who quickly produced a switchblade knife from his pocket and opened the blade, "we got some business to settle with you now."
"I'm not really in the mood," Simon smiled, though he was really telling the truth. It had been some time since he'd had a modern painkiller, and between the chill in the air and the long run to the freight yard, his joints were quite unhappy. From the noise the train was making, he tried to gauge how far away the camelback had moved. "Later, you name the place, and I'll be there. I'll bring the wine and a picnic lunch. We'll make an afternoon of it." Whitey laughed.
"Naw," he said with a bitter smile, "not this time old timer. You ain't gettin' away. But this time," he lifted his right hand and pointed a grimy finger at Litchfield, "this time you better fight like a man!" The train continued inching its way towards the junction. "So, you gonna use your pansy-ass dirty tricks this time? You got no guts? You got no honor?" Whitey threw his hands out, taunting Simon. "You gonna be a man about it this time? Sissy boy?"
Simon shook his head and laughed.
"You want be to 'be a man about it', eh?" he said as he threw his coat to the ground. "You want me to fight you with the equivalent of one hand tied behind my back?" He reached up and scratched his chin as he judged the heights of the four men. "I'm not sure how four-to-one odds jibe with 'honor', but I'm game. If nothing else, I feel obliged to give the lot of you a lesson in manners."
Whitey cackled, spit flying out of his mouth. "Whatever, old man. You'll be dead either way!"
The four of them began to close in on Simon, who stood there calmly and then raised his fists into the classic -- Victorian era -- boxer's stance. "I presume that the Marquis of Queensbury rules apply."
Whitey smirked. "Ooo, I can see you're a real tough guy. Sure -- we'll even take you on one at a time." The tweed man smiled wickedly and put his knife back in his pocket.
Simon sighed. "Actually, I'm a bit pressed for time. Let's just finish this quickly, shall we?"
Whitey charged, his fists high and his shoulders hunched to provide maximum cover for his head. Simon almost felt sorry for him -- he really was trying to conform to some kind of rules. Unfortunately for him, Simon had first learned to fight in the streets -- piano lessons and good grades having earned him more than his share of enemies.
A sharp kick to the knee dropped Whitey's hands and left him wide open for a solid right cross to the temple. Simon shook his bruised hand as the thug collapsed like a cheap folding chair.
"Oh, dear. I suppose that was more the Marquis of Queens than Queensbury. But let's carry on, shall we?"
Whitey's companions rushed in all at once, all pretence of fairness -- or organization -- discarded.
If he had been younger, and had more time, Simon might have tried doing it their way, all haymakers and headbutts. But he had a train to catch.
The first man to come within reach glanced down at Simon's feet, expecting another low kick. Simon's palm strike flattened his nose and made him easy prey for a partial kaiten-nage throw that sent him stumbling into his companions. Now all three were off-balance and confused, and Simon glided in to finish the job.
Simon countered a low punch with a wrist lock and quick footwork that sent his assailant crashing to the ground, where a carefully measured kick to the head took the man out of the fight. This gave the last uninjured man time to grab Simon in a rib-cracking bear hug.
Grunting, Simon decided to use his head, lowering his chin to his chest and then straightening suddenly. The back of Simon's skull struck his captor's nose and mouth with a crunch of splintering bones and teeth. Simon dropped down and spun out of the now-loosened bear hug, grabbing the man's wrist as he did so. He continued to pivot, pulling his opponent off balance, then used the trapped arm as a lever to drive the man face first into the ground.
Only one of Whitey's henchmen was still standing -- the man whose nose had met Simon's palm less than a minute earlier. The man was game enough to raise his fists again, although he kept glancing at his downed friends as if wishing they would get up to help.
Simon timed his move to match one of those downward glances, using another palm strike to the forehead to achieve his fourth and final knockout of the evening. "Bonus points for courage -- but ten demerits for taking your eyes off your opponent."
Whitey was just beginning to stir, groaning and probing his aching head with hands bloodied by his fall to the ground. But the train was still in motion, and time was running out.
"Hey Whitey," Simon yelled as he ran towards the locomotive. "Remember this, wisdom is understanding how little you know! You definitely are not a wise man!"
The camelback was gaining speed, and it took longer than he thought it would to reach it. Getting to the cabin was made more complex by the arrangement of the camelback design. Access to the engineer was provided by stairs and a walkway, the access stairs being mounted on the front of the locomotive just in front of the main drive cylinders.
Ballast slipped from beneath his feet, and Simon nearly met a bloody fate upon the ties, rails, and rocks. Finally, however, he grabbed the front railing and swung himself onto the first step. Climbing quickly, he then negotiated the narrow walkway running alongside the boiler and leading to the control cabin. He was about to run for the door when he spotted a broken half of a wooden shunter's pole, a device often affixed across the front of the locomotive which allowed for the moving of two rows of freight cars at once, one set being pushed directly by the locomotive and the other by the pole. The practice was dangerous--as the broken pole clearly showed--and was later banned, but at that moment Simon was glad to see it.
Inside, another large goon, though this one appeared much younger than the others had been, was busily kicking the figure of Eddie Winter, who lay bleeding on the cabin floor. His attacker laughed with each kick, though in actuality each laugh was more of a loud, ratty squeal. Between the noise of the locomotive and the sound of the kicking, the goon completely failed to notice that Simon had come in.
"Hey," Simon called out, but the goon kicked Eddie again.
"You're my first kill, buddy boy!" the man said with sadistic glee. "I'm gonna enjoy this one!" After quickly checking the dimensions of the control space, Simon lifted the pole and brought it down swiftly upon the man's back. The attacker's fedora flew off as he collapsed in a heap on top of Eddie.
"Sorry," Simon said as he started dragging the man out of the cabin and onto the walkway. "I really did plan to give you a chance to quit, but you just wouldn't pay attention." The train was clearly accelerating, and the gray-white ballast below the engine was becoming more of blurb. After another quick look in the direction from which the Union Comet would be approaching, Simon lifted the goon up and pushed him over the side and onto the ground. "Sorry fella," he said as he bounded for the cab. "There just isn't time for niceties." Simon ran back inside and crouched down next to Eddie.
The engineer, dressed in the same type of outfit he'd worn when Simon first met him, lay on his back, his right hand clutching his chest, blood oozing from both a chest wound and his mouth and nose. The pea coat, in fact, was drenched in blood. One of Eddie's eyes, purple and swollen, was almost completely shut.
"Eddie," Simon said as he grabbed the driver's shoulders. "Eddie!" At first, Eddie looked as if he barely comprehended that someone was there, much less that that someone was Simon Litchfield. Finally, though, a smile struggled onto his swollen lips.
"H-h-hey there," Eddie said weakly. "Maybe I shoulda bet on the Redskins this time." Simon looked around in the cabin at the various knobs and levers around him.
"We're...we're heading for the main line," Simon spoke quickly. "I always concentrated on the diesels when I played Train Simulator." Simon looked at the bewildering array of levers, knobs, and dials before him on the control panel. "I haven't the first clue how to stop this thing!"
"Train," Eddie sputtered, "train simulwha-whater?" The engineer coughed, and more blood oozed from his chest wound. Blood, in fact, was already starting to pool on the floor.
"It's nothing," Simon said. "What do I do? How do I stop this train?" Simon looked out the front windshield and noticed two things. First, the main line was getting very close. Second, he could see the smoke and steam from the Comet rising up from behind several buildings. The passenger train would be entering the curve to this part of the track, and its engineers would be completely unaware of the disaster waiting for them at the junction.
Eddie looked up above his head and at a lever hanging from the ceiling. "Grab that," he said. "Push forward. Forward. All the way." Simon grabbed the lever, which easily slid all the way forward.
Eddie slowly raised his hand and pointed at something that looked a combination lever and bicycle brake handle. "That next," he rasped. "S-s-squeeze, push forward. F-f-orward." Simon looked at the controls, found what Eddie was indicating, and firmly grabbed the control. Squeezing the handle, he pushed the lever forward, but the control was balky. "Kick it, if ya have to," Eddie said. "This bucket of bolts is twenty years...tw-twenty..." His voice trailed off into the engine noise. Simon grabbed and pushed again, and with a sudden snap the control flew forward. This time, the engine began slowing. Simon looked up just as the Comet started blowing its whistle. Simon could clearly see the front of the U&I Atlantic, its bright yellow light shining in the morning air. They've seen us, he thought, and they understand there's nothing they can do. It's all up to us!
"Keep pushin'," Eddie said. "Keep..." Simon pushed again. "O-okay...brake handle..." He pointed with a shaking hand at the opposite side of the cabin. Simon quickly spotted it, ran over, and pushed forward on it. All along the train, brakes squeezed against metal, producing a loud, scraping sound, and Simon imagined the sparks that must be flying from them. Eddie slumped over, and Simon fell against the control panel.
As soon as he could push himself back, Simon checked the Comet again. The camelback was definitely slowing, but there still appeared to be no guarantee that they would stop in time. He pushed against the brake a final time and felt as the freight cars slid forward into each other, and with a final jolt, the train came to a halt.
Simon stood, panting, against the instrument panel and watched as the Union Comet streaked by. The camelback had stopped close enough to the main line to allow Simon to look at the alarmed faces of the passengers. He looked down before the last car passed.
"It's been a helluva ride, huh," Eddie said weakly, and he laughed between gurgling coughs. "You keep jumpin' in to save me from somethin' every time I see you." Simon laughed lightly and looked over at Eddie. The engineer's skin was growing more ashen by the minute, and Simon again knelt down in front of him, turning him again onto his back. "I'm sorry I keep screwing things up."
"It's not you, Eddie," Simon said as he lowered his gaze to the bloody floor of the cabin. Now that the accident had been averted, a new reality was presenting itself, and Simon was wishing he didn't have to confront it. The Comet's crew'll report this when they reach the station, he thought. Police will be here soon. "I can't explain, but this," Simon looked up and forced a smile, "this one's not on you."
"Simon," he spoke, "I just wanted to, wanted to say thanks. I never woulda made it this far without you." Eddie licked his lips, tried to sit up, and then slumped further to the floor. "How'd," he winced in pain, "how'd ya know I was in trouble this time?"
"Luck," Simon said as he stood up, his eyes closed. Eddie shifted his legs and kicked the shunter's pole. Hearing the rattle, Simon bent down and picked it up, feeling the weight of it in his hands. "Pure damn luck." Eddie laughed again and then cringed as another wave of pain washed over him.
"Simon," Eddie said in a raspy voice. "I'm..." He coughed violently. "I...I think I'm dyin'." Simon turned around to face the side window, his features screwed into one of sadness and anguish.
"I think you are, too, Eddie," Simon said quietly. I think you are, Simon thought as a terrible truth started to overcome him. I think you are. Simon breathed in deeply and tightened his grip on the shunter's pole. His breathing became more and more rapid, and sweat beaded up on his forehead. Does it have to be this way, he thought desperately. Can I just walk away? Trust that it'll be all better now? It's my fault he was here for them to find. My fault. My responsibility. Simon opened his eyes, and a few tears ran down his cheek.
"If I am," Eddie croaked. "I appreciate everything you done. I mean that." Eddie's breathing became shallower. "Th-th-th-thank you." Simon tensed up. Images of when he first arrived in 1939, of the fight with Mitch and Buddy, of the conversation with the likeable if flawed Eddie Winter, all ran through his head. And as they did, they seemed to build towards a crescendo of flashing images and white noise. I think he is, Simon kept thinking. It's my responsibility. Oh god...
"I'm so sorry," Simon spoke quietly before he raised the pole and prepared to spin around and strike.
The O Street Bookstore was a place that nearly any book lover could adore though he or she would have to do so quietly and by appointment only. When Simon had called to gain admittance after being assured by a knowledgeable man at the Washington Post that the O Street Bookstore would likely be the only place in town to find a quality copy of Dickens, the owner had been surly, ill-mannered, and thoroughly arrogant. It was only after further reassurances that Litchfield went ahead to the appointment.
As Simon examined the shelves, which were stacked floor to ceiling with books of various genres, shapes, and sizes, he mentally calculated how much money he had left to spend. Given the sheer number of books present and the small numbers of customers a by-appointment-only policy would allow, Simon was able to deduce two things. First, the owner was independently wealthy, able to comfortably deal with the small amounts of money such a store would generate, especially during a depression. Second, the owner loved books, loved them so much that he would make it as difficult and as painful as possible for anyone wishing to buy one of the volumes present in the store. Still, Simon had to admit that the quality and selection, especially given the time period, were exquisite.
The ad in the Washington Post had been relatively cheap, and thanks to his single workday with the Georgetown construction site, his finances were in good order. Still, he knew that the venture wouldn't be easy. The only other person who had been there when Simon was admitted through the front door--a balding, rotund man in a tweed jacket--had paid $50 for a first edition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, an unbelievable sum of money for 1939. Even more unbelievable was the fact the customer had overpaid that much in the first place.
"The Book of the Grotesque," the rotund man spoke as he admired the tome, "is one of the greatest works of American literature. I can't for the very life of me understand why Anderson isn't held in higher regard."
"Indeed," the store owner said. The owner was a thin man with extraordinarily wrinkled skin and wisps of gray hair that would have made Einstein proud. "I look forward to all of his books though, I must admit," he coughed and eyed Simon suspiciously, "I found Dark Laughter a much more profound work." He stepped from behind his desk and walked over to Litchfield. "My fine, judicious friend," he said, "you have been here for nearly one hour. I am not runnin' a library, sir. Are you planning to make a purchase?"
"You have the salesmanship of a goat," Simon spoke as he pulled down a flawless copy of Great Expectations. "Fortunately, for you, this fits the bill perfectly. If you'll sell it to me, sir!" The bookseller sniffed loudly and cursed under his breath. Finally, after a long pause, during which he never blinked nor took his eyes off of the doctor, he spoke.
"$70," he said defiantly, "for the Dickens. I'll grant you that is more than any sane man should pay for something like that, but that is my price. Take it, or leave it, sir!" Simon opened his mouth to suggest exactly where the bookseller should leave the book...
"Welcome home, Dr. Litchfield," Eckert said as he smiled creaselessly. Simon collapsed to the floor, his world spinning, his mind unable to focus upon any single coherent thought. Callow watched from the background as Eckert and the technicians gathered Simon and tried to help him to his feet.
"Oh pah...fiszzitts!" Simon gurgled as he thrashed about. "Hezofothazitches! Quizno!"
"Steady, Doctor Litchfield," Eckert spoke as he tried to hold back Simon's arms. "Thanks to your physiological data, I strongly suspect that the current procedure causes a period of chemical imbalance post transit." He smiled as reassuringly as he could. "Fear not, the effects shall pass." Simon, in the midst of his convulsions, managed to hold his gaze on the egg, which was slowing down after its most recent spin.
"Time is an asterisk!" Simon shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. "Time isn't holding us! S-s-same as it ever was! Same as it ever was!" Even as the egg was still slowly rotating on its pedestal, Simon's world was coming increasingly into focus, and from out of the corner of his eye, he spotted one of the technicians running towards him with a glass of water. "You throw that at me, junior, and you'll be minus a kneecap!" Simon coughed as the technician skidded to halt and as everyone backed away. Closing his eyes, he laid down on the floor and massaged his temples. It was only then that he suddenly felt for the book and found it, seemingly intact, laying next to him.
"It worked, Simon," Callow said as he stepped forward from the shadows, his arms crossed. "Right after we saw your ad in the Post, there was a noticeable drop in the number of oscillations. Congratulations." Simon opened his eyes, was overwhelmed by the light on the ceiling above him, closed them again, blinked several times, and then forced them to do their job.
"How long have I been gone?" Simon asked. Everything in the room was coming into stronger and stronger focus, including Callow and his crossed arms. "Your time, that is."
"Two days," Eckert said, "fifteen hours, forty-seven minutes, and twenty-six seconds. Approximately, anyway. Kantrell over there," he said nodding towards one of the technicians, "didn't hit the launch clock until after your departure. Are you feeling better, Dr. Litchfield?"
"No," he said, slowly sitting up. Thank God there's no nausea this time, he thought. "No, but I don't think I'm going to barf all over your lovely equipment, if that's what you're worried about. More's the pity."
"You really are a philistine," Callow said. "Or a Luddite. Still failing to appreciate what I've done."
"We've done," Eckert corrected. Callow crouched down close to Litchfield.
Callow very quietly but visibly bristled. "Dr. Eckert," he said, "you may have the technical know-how, but none of this would exist without my facilities and my egg. Is that clear, doctor?" Eckert, somewhat taken aback, simply nodded and returned his attention to Simon. "So, what did you find? What was going wrong in 1939?"
"I must confess to having a tremendous amount of curiosity myself," Eckert said, regaining his composure. Simon rubbed his eyes and mouth and looked at Callow, then Eckert, then Callow again. Suddenly, he reached back and cold-cocked Callow on the jaw, sending the Lower Echelon representative sprawling towards the wall. "That wasn't what I was expecting, I must say," Eckert said dryly as he stood and moved a discreet distance from Litchfield.
"What did I find," Simon said calmly as he stood up and dusted off his clothes. He reached down and picked up Great Expectations. "What was going wrong?" Simon pointed a finger at Callow, who was busy standing up and straightening his suit but, emphatically, not dusting himself off. "You, you self-righteous bastard, was what was going wrong!" Simon turned his gaze towards Eckert, a disturbing, angry glare that made the scientist distinctly uncomfortable and sent him closer to the collection panels around the egg. "And you! As a scientist, a fucking specialist in your field, you should already know the answer. For that matter, you should have known before I ever left for 1939." Simon shook his head. "Damn my eyes," he said quietly, "I should have seen it myself."
"I'm certain I've no idea what you're talking about," Eckert said as he stepped over to the control console and shut down the travel mechanism.
"Oh yes you do," Simon replied. "You just don't want to admit it."
"What's he talking about?" Callow asked. He walked as close to Litchfield as he could get without actually being in reach of the good doctor's fist. "Is it still the chemical imbalance talking?" Simon laughed quietly though he was discovering that the nausea was, in fact, present again.
"What I'm talking about is the observer effect," Simon spoke sternly. "Or maybe, Eckert, you'd prefer the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? The more energy you pour into observing something, the more you alter that which you observe." Eckert grabbed a clipboard and began noting instrument readings.
"The oscillations were there, Dr. Litchfield," Eckert said firmly. "They were no observer effect. They were real."
"I'm not denying that," Simon replied. "We may never know what triggered them on your original sweeps. If I had to guess, I'd say it was some backroom deal, some discreet discussion between one official and another that was never noted for posterity but which had some impact on future events. But sending me was the worst thing you ever could have done!"
"Are you saying that we caused the increased oscillations?" Callow asked incredulously. "Are you saying that the entirety of 1939 somehow grasped that a scientist from the future was observing it? That's absurd!"
"It's like a feedback loop," Simon continued. "The more you looked at the oscillations, the more curious you became, so you looked harder! Then the oscillations increased, you looked even harder, started considering drastic measures. The number of possible outcomes started to spiral out of control."
"What he says," Eckert spoke quietly, his expression seemingly showing that the scientist was running a plethora of figures through his head, "is, theoretically at least, true. It's something we never considered in our original planning. An oversight." He looked at Callow. "Next time, we'll need to work out stricter protocols and ground rules."
"Next time!" Simon yelled. "If either of you understood just how close we came to the brink, you'd personally dismantle this...this abomination!"
"Yes, Dr. Litchfield," Callow spoke in an oily voice. "That is something we need to discuss in detail. We'll need to have a debriefing in a couple of hours, after you've had a chance to sit back and," he touched his jaw and winced, "and reflect upon your actions on this mission."
"If you're lucky," Simon growled as he stomped towards the elevator, "I'll consent to being debriefed in a couple of days. I'm gonna get some rest, and, frankly, I'm going to get pissed. I mean, the bender to end all benders." He spun around and looked at Callow and Eckert, burning fury in his eyes. "You've...you've no conception of the harm this machine nearly caused!" Simon paused, closed his eyes, and then reopened them slowly. This time, he spoke more quietly, revealing a vulnerability he would normally never show in front of Callow. "Have you even any notion of the harm you caused me? I've had a difficult enough time forgetting the others." Simon turned and headed again for the elevator. "The Max Cory's of the world...the Eddie Winter's..."
"I'll grant you a day," Callow said.
"You'll grant me whatever I damn well want!" Simon yelled as he stepped into the lift. "Just this once, anyway. Don't worry, you'll get your report, every detail. And when I'm finished, if you have any humanity left in you, you'll destroy this thing." Simon pulled the mechanism to lower the steel door. "A pox on both your houses," he mouthed as the door slammed shut.
Eckert looked at Callow and shook his head. "He lacks the detachment of the true scientist," he said as he turned his attention towards recalibrating the time machine. "We may hit some rough spots, but I have every confidence we'll smooth out the procedure."
Callow stared at the door, at the space where Simon had been, trying to burn a hole through the steel with the heat from his eyes.
It was a cold, blustery night when Simon, dressed in his usual, immaculate khaki, stepped from the Metro station and out onto the decrepit streets. The neighborhood was a shambles, a ramshackle collection of rundown buildings and dirty streets. The only vehicles present were broken things long past their usefulness.
It had taken a few days for Simon to track down the likely location of the former American Gateway Station, a task made more complicated by the fact that he conducted the search on his own. Somehow, involving Stephanie and her computer wizardry seemed ill-advised. Things had been strange enough without him having to explain that a time machine was sitting in the basement of the Nightwatch's library.
Nearly every street name he'd remembered from 1939 had disappeared over time, apparently during an ill-fated attempt at urban renewal. Kettlewell Road, the site of the non-assassination of John Nance Garner, had disappeared entirely, run under a larger industrial park that had completely failed to develop as its planners had hoped.
The Union & Indianapolis Railway, as Simon suspected, had died quickly after the end of World War II thanks to poor planning and mismanagement. Most of its rails had been pulled up; most of its right-of-way had reverted to city, state, or county authority.
A man sitting on the front stoop of a boarded up building lit his lithium burner and inhaled deeply the narcotic vapors, quickly falling into a drugged-out stupor. Simon shook his head and walked quickly along the street. He reached into his pocket and switched off the safety on his .380 caliber pistol while firmly gripping Great Expectations in his other hand. According to his research, the remains of the station had to be somewhere along this block.
He finally spotted it in the flickering light of a malfunctioning sodium lamp. Seemingly all traces of its glorious past had disappeared. In place of the one door through which U&I porters admitted travelers were several doors, all of them far less ornate. The station appeared to have been subdivided into smaller businesses, or at least that had been plan. Now, it was simply derelict, empty and boarded up in a failed attempt to keep people out.
Walking up the steps, Simon had no difficulty prying open a door and entering the building. Reaching into another pocket, he pulled out a flashlight and shone it around the dirty, dusty, spider web filled rooms. Crouching down, Simon tugged at the corner of a filthy carpet and lifted it. Sure enough, the granite floor of the old station was still there, waiting to be discovered by anyone who cared. Standing, he moved farther in towards what had once been the waiting area. The benches and chairs were gone, replaced by a much smaller area cluttered with MDF desks and ransacked filing cabinets. Scattered on the floor were the remains of crack pipes and lithium burners, used condoms, spots of dried blood.
Pushing open a door, he stepped into a passage that should have lead to the lavatories. Instead, it dead ended at a wall intended to separate this "business" from the others in the building. The old ticket counter, however, was still there, and Simon stopped at the grime covered wood.
"Karl," Simon spoke quietly. "It's Simon. Simon Litchfield." He scanned the room with his light, looking for any sign that Karl might be there, but the room was cold and dead. "I brought the book, as promised, and I'm leaving Great Expectations here. Even if someone else finds it, I don't think they'll want it. Everyone who comes here appears to have other things on their mind."
Simon moved the flashlight to his other hand and wiped the dust from a spot on the counter. Putting the book down, he looked around the room one more time. "I'm sorry, Karl," he said, looking up at the black nothingness of the ceiling. "I really did try to bring this to you in 1939." He's probably not even here, Simon thought. Even if he was, he'd couldn't talk to me now. "Goodbye Karl. I owe you more than you can ever know." Sighing, Simon walked out of the room and made his way towards the exit and to the streets of broken dreams outside the old station, his receding footsteps growing quieter and quieter.
In the stillness of the ticket counter, in the darkness of an abandoned train station, specks of dust started to swirl as if in a gentle breeze, the distant sound of a grandfather clock lightly echoed in the air, and the cover of Great Expectations slowly opened to reveal the first page.
© 2005 by Jeff Williams. “Nightwatch: The Kindness of Strangers” is brought to you by the good people of Two Guns, Arizona; the unreformed Cookie Monster; and the Nightwatch Writers’ Workshop.