The train swayed uneasily as Tommy clutched the cool, metal wall. He could not take his gaze off of the dead man’s face, which lacked all color. There was neither pain nor acknowledgement on the man’s face. He was vacant.
“And neither of you touched the body after you found it?” The Conductor inquired. The men shook their heads in frantic silence. “And no one else was observed on this end of the train?”
“No, sir,” both men stated though the words were fuzzy and distant in Tommy’s ears.
The Conductor leaned down closer to the body. Tommy could only remain standing with locked knees. He was transfixed by the milky gaze and could think of nothing else except the emptiness of the dead man’s glare.
“What do you think, Officer?” The Conductor probed. Tommy barely heard the Conductor as his own heart beat pounded in his head.
“He’s dead,” Tommy responded faintly. His voice came out weak and cracked.
The Conductor and both men turned their heads in Tommy’s direction. He wanted to run. Why were they looking to him for answers? What was he supposed to say? He wasn’t a police officer. He was just a scrawny kid who just turned fourteen!
Their expectations shown strongly in their eyes. Tommy knew he couldn’t stall much longer, or he’d risk exposing himself as the fraud, as the imposter that he truly was underneath Harold’s skin. Tommy frantically sorted through every Hardy Boys book he’d ever read as he searched for the right thing to do, but the unsettling nature of a body right at his feet was all he could think about as the three men continued to look in his direction. Soon, they’d know he wasn’t Officer Perkins, Tommy was sure of it. He swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke in a raspy, cracked voice.
“Who was he?” It was the first thought which popped in his head.
“Good question. I assume neither of you bagmen knew the passenger?” The Conductor directed to the two men. They both stammered out responses. Their noncommittal answers gave Tommy a few seconds to think of something, anything, that would get him out of this mess.
“Does he have a wallet on him?” Tommy posed. He knew he had to just keep asking questions, even if they didn’t have answers, until he could figure out how to get away from the body.
“Good question. Let’s just see who this gent is, then,” the Conductor stated as he began to rifle through the dead man’s pockets. First, he had to pull a solid, black crowbar out of the dead man’s grip. Tommy expected the body to move, the eyes to blink, for any indication the man knew his privacy was being violated. But, none came. Just the eerie, unoccupied stare.
The Conductor’s hands retreated out of the waist pockets and went to the breast pocket inside the man’s jacket. As soon as he flicked the inside of the jacket to the side, Tommy could see the corner of a piece of paper sticking out from within. Gingerly, the Conductor pulled it out. The crinkle of unfolding paper slapped against Tommy’s ears in an irritating manner.
“Dearest Dr. Pence,” the Conductor began as he stood. “The leadership here at Morpheus Pharmaceuticals regrets your decision to terminate your career and valuable work within the walls of this company. Please see to it you do not remove any product patents, conceptual designs, or disseminate any of the information gathered within the boundaries of Morpheus Pharmaceutical’s intellectual and physical properties whether to surrounding pharmaceutical companies or those in positions of authority. We at Morpheus Pharmaceuticals value our privacy and will do what is necessary to safeguard this privacy. Further, you no longer have clearance to be on the premises of the San Francisco Laboratories. You will receive compensation for your work up to the date of your termination which is effective immediately. Good day, sir.”
A steady, chugging silence fell as the Conductor scrutinized the letter—searching for anything further. Finally, he looked up at Tommy.
“What do you make of this?”
Tommy didn’t have a clue. He longed to be back home, in the comfort of his own home. Not here. Not solving a murder! There was no research and notes available to him. What was he supposed to do? His mind traversed the pages of his Hardy Boys books until he found his next course of action. The Hardy Boys—brothers Fred and George—always sought to establish the scene of the crime by asking the most important questions, first. This allowed them to narrow the playing field down to the variables that mattered.
“How’d he die?” He redirected. The Conductor’s mustache twitched aggressively and his eyes narrowed as he looked at Tommy. Tommy didn’t meet his glare and it wasn’t long before the Conductor turned back towards the body. Tommy knew he had to be more convincing, so he cautiously bent down next to the Conductor to analyze the corpse. He remembered how the Hardy Boys conducted their own crime scenes, and tried to do the same as he looked all around for evidence. His gaze roamed over the man’s suit—very business-like and formal. On the man’s left hand was a ring—assumedly the man was married. Tommy looked everywhere except at the man’s face. He just couldn’t muster up the courage. His eyes went to the neck but couldn’t go any further.
“I am not a physician by any means, but I do not see any sign of aggression or violence. No stab wounds or gunshots. I don’t see any blood at all, actually,” the Conductor narrated out loud as he rubbed a small, golden object in his left hand. The object looked like a pocket watch, except the Conductor didn’t have it open to tell the time. He was simply stroking it gently, absentmindedly.
Tommy knew he was right, though. There was nothing, aside from general lack of breathing, that indicated this man was dead. If his eyes were closed, he’d assume the man was just sleeping.
But, something caught Tommy’s eye.
One speck of blood, just below the chin on the man’s collar, fixed his attention. The Conductor gracefully turned the man’s body to the side to see if there were any wounds, but there were none to be found. Tommy couldn’t take his eyes off the blood. It was almost concealed by the man’s tie and it screamed at him so loudly, he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“Look,” Tommy said as he pointed with his finger, careful to stay a few inches away from the body. The Conductor turned his attention to where Tommy was indicating. Behind him, one of the two bagmen started to cough vigorously.
“Keen eye, Officer Perkins,” the Conductor responded as he examined the blood. Its source, however, was not under the man’s shirt, so the Conductor was immediately stumped.
“What about under his chin?” Tommy asked.
The Conductor carefully tilted the man’s head back, and sure enough there was a small hole on the chin. It almost looked like a freckle, except it was outlined in a raised, white ring—almost similar to an ant bite or welt from paintball.
“I wonder what would have caused that?” One of the bagmen asked before he hid his head into his arm for another round of coughing. A vivid image popped into Tommy’s mind of a recent dose of yearly shots he had to take.
“Capital idea, Officer! Yes, a syringe would have definitely made this puncture and its proceeding physical result. But, how did the man die from a simple syringe? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It was probably the stuff in the needle that killed him,” Tommy offered sarcastically.
“Impressive deduction, Harold. I knew you were the man for the job. Now, how did the perpetrator manage such an assault? A needle is an unwieldy weapon of choice—not very effective in close quarters. How did he manage to get close enough for the final blow, so to speak?”
Tommy’s mind got to work as he stood. He started to pace back and forth as the train swayed. For a moment, he forgot who he was. He forgot the sheer terror of his situation. He forgot he was afraid. Instead, he sought out the solution. After a few seconds of pondering, he had pieced together an idea. It was based on the fact the wound looked like a paintball strike. But, what was most important was where it was located. Once, he had hid in the bushes from Sam and waited until his friend was almost on top of him. Then, he surprised Sam with a volley of paintballs which struck up from his position. The result was a series of welts cutting across his chest and chin.
Tommy stopped pacing.
“The needle came from beneath him, which means someone shorter than him is the one who stabbed him.”
“Yes, that makes sense. Boys, if you will, raise this man to his feet.”
The two men eyes each other wearily. Reluctantly, they stepped forward and placed a hand under each of the man’s arms. Slowly, they raised the dead weight to his feet. The man’s head rolled to the side grossly and Tommy’s stomach rolled with it.
“So, we’re looking for an assailant who is under six feet. On a train with over one hundred commuters, it shouldn’t be too difficult,” the Conductor said with sarcasm. “Thankfully, no one in this room is shorter than six foot, so it looks like you men are clear of suspicion. You can put the Doctor down.” Both men looked relieved. Hastily, they lowered the body back to the bare floor. “I suspect we’ll have to inform the Chief about these unfortunate circumstances. In the meantime, you two are free to go back to your posts. Keep this to yourself, gentlemen. Do not speak a word about this to the passengers nor the attendees,” the Conductor said with a hint of warning.
“No, sir. Mums the word.” They both nodded in unison. They both turned and started to walk away. Tommy watched the Conductor’s mustache bristle.
“Before you go.” The two men turned. “How’d you know to come down this far, though? It’s quite curious that you both were here to find the body.” The Conductor asked firmly. Both men glanced at each other ad exchanged sheepish looks. “Well, out with it. Why were you both down here?”
“Well, sir, you see…,” the first man said vaguely.
“No, I don’t. Which is why I am asking you gentlemen,” the Conductor stated with an edge of irritation.
“We were told there was a cask of whiskey back here. And we were encouraged to make sure nothing was broken or out of place,” the second man said as his face reddened.
“I see. And I suppose you were intending on opening a couple bottles to make sure they hadn’t soured?” The Conductor chided. Both men looked nervously at the floor. “Well, it seems your search was for the best since you two ended up finding the Doctor. Good work, gentlemen.”
“Thank you, sir. We was only meaning to do our job, sir,” the taller of the two fumbled.
“Of course. Remember, not a word to anyone. You are dismissed,” the Conductor said with a heavy sigh.
Without haste, the two men quickly walked away.